The Paper Boat
by Elizabeth McKague © 2015
O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...
He made them in crafty, rapid gestures, folding the pages of a manuscript he’d carried to the river. Thinking he would read it, he planned to sit on his favorite rock until the mud of the bank crept into his only pair of leather shoes and the October dusk erased what light was left in the sky.
The white sheets of paper were slick and delicate. His tiny boats easily drifted from the water’s edge in measured breaths and sailed down river in a balanced breeze. The Arno looked murky and heavy, a green shade in the last pale slants of daylight. He creased and folded his stanzas and cantos, turning the corners of each page into lips that held a silence. A silence before voyage, a silence released from the futility of whatever permanence he had originally intended by attempting to write the damn thing. He started to work faster in a synchronized fury, setting each paper boat upon the water as soon as it was made. He got a paper cut, then another, and his fingers grew cramped in the sharp, cold air hovering over the river with the approaching night.
At last he folded his hands together in a buckle around his knees and relaxed. His posture copied the shape of the rock. He stared hypnotically at the flotilla of paper boats he had made. Spreading out along the river’s dreary current, they passed beneath the Ponte Solferino until page one was a white speck in the distance. Then page two and page three, until the entire paper fleet, like defeated warrior ships, slowly disappeared into a blinding mist, moving westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. The sun sped away and the Arno became gray and opaque.
As a child, he had made paper boats with such concentration that nothing existed in his mind but the movement of his fingers against the sheets of paper. He tore them from a random notebook he had discovered about the house. They felt at once flimsy yet stiff, soft and cold. It was the autumn of 1802. He had left his sisters to their music lesson and wandered out of doors alone. He descended the wide steps in the front of the mansion, crossed the circular drive of gritty stones where the carriages came in, and continued through a maze of clipped green hedges in the courtyard. He was not even aware that he had left the house without a guardian. He remembered a sense of freedom and the sad scent of his mother’s neglected garden. Fading, pink chrysanthemums and frosted white colored roses danced, nonchalantly withering in symmetric rows. He walked beside the white washed fence that was then twice his height and passed the stables without being noticed. The horses were being let out from their stalls into the meadow. He strode over a damp, grassy hill and finally came to Field Place pond. The gray-green water quivered in a slight breeze. He found a flat spot of dry pebbles situated amongst tall yellow reeds at the edge of the pond. He sat down and felt hidden. He watched some fallen maple leaves drift in the water, aimlessly spinning this way then that. He sat there that day for hours, making boats and watching them float. At one point, the sun broke through the late afternoon clouds and illuminated the pond. His paper boats shone. He took a stick and made ripples. He was ten years old.
Perhaps he was punished for wandering about the Estate alone that day. He didn’t remember. He didn’t remember much from his childhood. Just the boats, the ghost stories he wrote with his eldest sister, the airless smell of the perfumed ladies who visited his mother’s tea room, the fear he felt each time he passed the door to his father’s stale library, a book of poems by Thomas Chatterton and that particular day when he sat at the pond alone. For something happened in the late hour of that afternoon. He sat watching the rings of ripples grow around his tiny spinning boats in the water, listening to the croak of a concealed, lone toad and the hoots of wild geese hunting for their winter home across the gray sky. Then it happened. It lasted for a moment but a moment that appeared to throw away all time.
He looked up to watch the flock of geese pass by. The black branches of an ominous oak clawed at the sky like some ancient, crippled beast scraping its tentacles against a pane of silver light. He looked down into the water for a sudden burst of light in the atmosphere nearly blinded him. He saw his reflection in the pond. He held his breath or could not breathe, maybe he had shrieked for the image terrified him. He was standing now and could see his entire figure in the water; a thin little boy with messy golden locks and blue eyes like gleaming sapphires and... wings! The whole world seemed upside down. He saw himself as an angel and it horrified him. He dared not look back up into the clouds for he was afraid he’d find a hole through which perhaps his subtle body had fallen. He never saw the angel again.
A discarded light from the street lamps along the quay beside the Arno made sharp arrows over the river that had by now gone black. Shelley rose and ascended the bank, snatching his long gray coat at the collar where buttons were lost and tried to bow his head under the harsh current of the wind.
He reached the Piazza Solferino where the very last rays of a tangerine sunset seemed to singe the edges of brown leaves drifting clumsily off chestnut trees. The square was fairly empty. A few parked carriages, a street musician wrapping his guitar in a tattered wool cloth, the shadowy lamplighter making his rounds and the rose colored glow in the two tall windows of a crowded restaurant. The bells of San Nicola struck at six o’clock. He stopped to listen, a habit he had developed since his exile into Italy, to simply stop and stand still for those few moments of ringing. He didn’t pray, he didn’t think, he didn’t speak, just breathed and listened. San Sepolcro, Santa Croce, Saint Marks, Saint Peters, San Giorgino Maggiore; the bells of each church unique to his attention. The bells of Westminster Abbey or any cathedral he’d lived by in England only reminded him of time, wrung his nerves, made him worry. A sort of bell toll anxiety he experienced even on his wedding day, or rather, both wedding days.
He turned onto the Lungarno Pacinotti, a wide avenue that traced the river. The chilly air forced him to quicken his stride. He watched a fisherman ahead, dragging his net out of the water and onto the shore. It was filled with silver perch flapping away. But that’s not what Shelley saw. He saw a woman’s body; silver, bloated, frozen, dead. The same body he saw in his mind when Mary returned from the post that afternoon and read him the letter, the only way she could, quickly, without expression, her voice laden, calm and dry.
“Harriet Westbrook, age 26, found drowned in the Serpentine. Cause of death, suicide.”
He had neither seen nor communicated with his ex-wife for ten years. The news did not shock him and his demeanor remained as blank as Mary’s. He went into his attic den alone for an hour. Then tucking the manuscript in his jacket left the apartment quietly, telling her he was off to Byron’s early. Instead, he went to the river, knowing ‘the haunting’ was about to return. He had seen ghosts all over Field Place as a child. He even discovered their hideouts and would often sneak into the pantry, the coal cellar or beneath the stair just to sit with them for the moments before he was found out. In college, in London, in Whales, in Ireland... wherever he’d traveled since, the ghosts would follow. By now such episodes had become a kind of state that was so familiar, that although it made him ache, like bouts of loneliness or sadness, he saw the spectral visitors as natural invitations into the enigma of the mind. He accepted his visions as markers or signs, invisible notices of eviction from one house of the spirit into another. The doctors called his visions ‘hallucinations,” but Shelley believed more in the ghosts than the doctors.
“Good evening!” The happy fisherman called up to Shelley who was scuffling along the road above the riverbank.
“Good evening.” Shelley echoed, “Looks like you have a good catch there.”
“A very good catch. Buona sera, Signore.”
He felt free of the haunting as he crossed the Ponte della Fortezza where the reflection of the street lamps blurred on the dark river. He walked on until he reached the steps of the Palazzo Lanfranchi, which he had named, “Lord Byron’s Circean Palace,” for the enormous rooms were forever littered, with not only a tropical menagerie of plants but also all kinds of exceptional animals.
“What a sorcerer you are, my Lord.” Shelley had commented when he first encountered Byron’s collection of pets in Ravenna, “I see you’ve brought Cicero back from the underworld in the form of a ferret and metamorphosed the old stoic Seneca into an owl!”
Byron had laughed, then added quite seriously, “You know, when I was at Cambridge I kept a grizzly bear in my rooms and I must confess that at one point I truly believed he was Marcus Aurelius Antonius himself.”
Although the bear was no longer a part of Byron’s zoo, the spectacle of his domesticated animals never ceased to amaze Shelley. As he crossed the Palace’s threshold, even though he’d done so one hundred times before, the scenery helped to lighten his thoughts and soon enough he became almost giddy.
In the foyer he was greeted by two German shepherds, composed as the Queen’s guards, while a majestic falcon perched on the head of a statue of Hermes in its center. Next, in the front hall, he paraded past an army of cats curled up upon the embroidered cushions of French rococo chairs that were set flush against the long frescoed wall. Byron’s three white monkeys were swinging in mocking gaiety from a monstrous glass chandelier. One of the monkeys bounced down into the corridor and the cats hunched up and hissed. He turned into a gallery where he was spied upon by the incandescent eyes of peacocks opening their feathers like a lady’s fan and when he reached the stairs to the second story, he was forced to experience a philosophical confrontation with a wandering Egyptian crane. At the entry to Byron’s private lodgings, a set of purebred Russian wolfhounds lounged on wooden benches at either end of an enormous hearth, perpetually oblivious to the sporadic swarms of yellow canaries flying in and out of the lush green ferns of potted plants. And finally, as he climbed the stairs, the echoes of fiery red and mint blue parrots aligned along the banister sang out in scratchy harmony, “The King is dead! The King is dead!”
Byron’s butler informed Shelley that the gentlemen were in the billiard room. He entered through the open door very quietly, clinging to the shadows elongated against a paneled wall by a blazing fire. They were playing a close game, Williams and Byron against Trelawny and Robert Southey. He sat down in a green velvet chair that was tucked into a discreet corner. Across the room sat Thomas Moore, crouched on the sofa, reading the fresh ink of Byron’s newest poem with a crinkled brow. They were all sipping sherry out of thin crystal glasses whilst Robert Southey captivated them with an animated review of his recent encounter in Switzerland.
“And just as we were leaving the hotel with the predicted blizzard upon us, Mr. Wordsworth wrapped his scarf around his long neck and ended our conversation about ‘Mad Shelley’ by saying, ‘A poet who has not produced a good poem before the age of twenty five, we may conclude, cannot and never will do so.’ In all earnest, I mentioned Shelley’s Queen Mab but Mr. Wordsworth just growled and said, ‘Won’t do. This hairy fellow is our flea trap!’ The words of William Wordsworth I tell you! Straight from the mouth of the man who is sure to be England’s next poet laureate.” He then grew silent to watch Byron nudge his last ball just to the edge of the middle bumper. Southey grinned, tapped his cue stick three times on the floor, then bent over the table, squinting through his awkward monocle and biting a mole that hung, gathering spittle upon the bulb of his lower lip as he muttered, “Sorry, old man,” and pounced forward on his stick to win the game. The rest of the group laughed at the amusement but Byron did not. He rolled his dark eyes about the smoky room and noticed his friend hiding in the green chair and limped toward it instantly.
“Shelley! We didn’t hear you come in.”
“I didn’t want to disturb your game.” He stood and took a deep breath. The room was stuffy and smelled of burnished wood.
“Southey here had a run-in with Wordsworth in Geneva.” Byron gripped Shelley's slim wrist.
“I heard.” He warmly shook his hand.
Robert rushed to meet the young poet, his face pink with embarrassment, “I don’t think he’s ever even read your work, really. And the weather was abominable that day, we were all out of our wits, truly.”
“Pleased to see you again too, Robert.” Shelley bowed his head slightly, “But my dear sir, there is no need to apologize. Now I know what England’s finest contemporary poet has to say about my work and I respect him all the more for it.” He leaned toward Southey’s quivering shoulders and whispered bitterly, “As a matter of fact I never did write a good poem before I was twenty-five. I suppose that means the last four years have been quite a waste of time.” Shelley straightened his posture and tugged at his waistcoat as he turned to Byron with a clandestine wink and announced, “You know, I do believe that as of this very moment I shall throw away my quill and commit my life’s work to perfecting the art of bird watching.”
Southey’s meaty shoulders began to shake. Byron chummily slapped his back, “Come now ol’ chap, let’s don’t get unruffled. Shelley is teasing us. Let Wordsworth have his say! Our boy here probably doesn’t give a damn!”
Robert’s eyes widened then narrowed into slits like a snake before its prey. Byron quickly leapt between them and challenged Robert to another game. Trelawny offered Shelley a glass of sherry that he declined. Instead he accepted the loose pages Tom had finished reading, the seventh canto of Byron’s Don Juan, which he took to the green velvet chair with a sense of relief. But as he settled down to read it, Byron, who had crossed the room to obtain a better cue stick, stopped abruptly behind Shelley’s chair and whispered, “Shall we throw him to the dogs?”
Shelley grinned, “No. Let the monkeys have him.”
The Lover From Sarajevo
by Elizabeth McKague
It was made out of the maple wood recovered from a shipwreck that had long ago been washed onto the shores of the Black Sea. The craftsman signed his name in an odd curly script with puce colored ink on a slip of glue-backed parchment, Aurelius Bumbescu, Bucharest, Romania, 1873.
You had to put your eye right up to the F hole to see it.
Sometimes he’d look up in a safe moment to watch the girl on the fourth floor. He could see her through the shattered windows of her apartment as he played in the plaza down below. She had written a play and spent her days rehearsing it with various dread headed characters. He played the cello. She played a kind of female Mephistopheles, from what he could gather. She was always speaking about the moon. The gnarly haired young men in the rest of her cast were all very tall, emaciated and pale. They stood around her in a circle like skeleton puppets, and from his view in the square, it often looked as if they were levitating, for their heads appeared to touch the ceiling. He lived on the floor above her. They smiled at each other every so often when they coincidentally passed on the winding stair, but never exchanged words. The air was very bad in their building and the fumes from the grenades outside made the stifling stillness inside it so dense, one would actually have to make an effort to say anything at all.
That morning when he came downstairs he heard the sounds of lovemaking echoing into the halls from behind her closed door. It made him nervous, like a bad omen. The streets were slippery when he went outside. It had not rained. He began to worry that it may. He sat on a bench in a corner of the square and unlocked the sturdy case. There was no point in looking at the sky. The pollution from bombs, fires and so much blood had created a perpetual shroud for anything celestial for many seasons. He didn’t even know what day it was, or what month anymore. He tried to remember how the trees had looked when they were alive, but even the trees had been standing stripped of their dignity for so long now it was not inconceivable that all of nature had been subjugated to a never ending winter. He started to play. His fingers were cold. Not rain today, maybe snow. If it became too cold he would have to stop, he didn’t want to hurt the cello, it was so sensitive to extreme temperatures. His fingers were not behaving with the flexibility he’d trained them for and he tried to purge out the stiffness as he continued to play his new piece, the one he was almost but not quite yet absolutely sure of, with a spirit absent of care for the weather.
Aurelius Bumbescu left the cello to Cidro Lemieux’s great grandfather, who left it to his grandfather who left it to Cidro’s father who in turn left it, not to Cidro at all, but just left it when he left Sarajevo on January 5th of 1992, exactly three months before the Siege. He left it leaning against the wall in its ancient hard case and gave Cidro a certain amount of cash but no instructions regarding the cello. He only promised to send his new address, when he got one, as he was headed, “North,” was all he told his son. For a short period Cidro enjoyed living alone. It was the first time he’d ever done so. Then the Serbian army surrounded the village and he felt an erupting sense of trepidation and confusion. Yet what mattered more to him at that point was the beginning of a stranger emotion, a combination of a new, overwhelming sense of individuality mixed with longing to hear from his father. As time went by, he found himself fighting off the persistent feeling that his father had probably died. Cidro grew up believing that he would become a man at the age of 21. This is what his father always told him. And so, that year, within those circumstances, he did. He was now 23.
His fingers were cramping up from the cold. He stopped to blow on them. The piece was all wrong. The arrangement sounded impure and strained and the midsection was too complicated. Perhaps he should change the tempo; it sounded like a thousand bullets in a row. A Bosnian soldier was crossing the plaza at the far end. He walked slowly, then slower and Cidro noticed he was wavering. The soldier began zigzagging directly toward the corner of the square where the cellist played. His steps were disorganized and he appeared intoxicated or... then he dropped. There was blood all over the back of his fatigues. He made an effort to look up at Cidro, who in turn looked the other way and kept playing.
The soldier’s eyes lifted toward the sky and froze. His hat had fallen off when he fell and landed right next to a pothole in the street out of which a young boy crawled carrying a plastic, five-liter jug of water. The boy scrambled to his feet, saw the dead soldier, picked up the hat and ran. Cidro heard trucks in the distance. He packed up and ran too, in the same direction of the boy. He waited in an alley for a short while until the fiasco was over and the body was dragged away for he had to cross the plaza to get to the market. They didn’t wash away the blood. He played there every day and the square had become like his own private stage. The boy had forgotten his water. He poured some of it over the cobblestones that had been stained, but replaced the jug knowing the boy would surely come back for it. He was too late. The underground market had already closed. He turned to walk home with his cello strapped to his back and passed a man in a doorway who called out to him, “Hey you...!”
He didn’t stop. “Hey, you! Fuckin’ cellist!” Cidro glanced back into the dim gray alcove. A haggard old man held out his hands. Four fresh eggs. “500 dinars,” he said. Cidro paid him 200, half of what he made that morning before the episode with the soldier cut short his hours.
He’d been playing on the street for money since he was 16. His father’s income had always been inconsistent, sporadic spells of what the Lemieux family knew as wealth, that is, a new jacket, a few dinners out and a ticket to the symphony, were often countered by long periods of nothing but tram change, bread and milk. When his father left, Cidro sold his own cello to pay the rent. Aurelius’ cello was of course worth much more, but he could never let it go, would never let it go. It was the only thing left in this new adult life that could trick him into feeling as if life had any purpose at all. He wrapped the eggs in his scarf and headed toward his home. Mortar was flying through the air and he was forced to cross Bascarsija, the oldest part of Sarajevo, built by the Ottoman's in the 15th century. It was the first district to be demolished. Now it it was a landscape of rubble, all the old turkish buildings broken to the ground and an enormous crater scarring the main square. Only one structure remained, the Sebilj, the public fountain. He used to play there in the summertime and had found such harmony in the constant sound of the soft splashing water, the muffled voices of people meeting in the cafes and the sight of children chasing pigeons with ice cream cones in their hands, even the discordant cooing of the pigeons- well, that world was gone. He scurried around the corner of the ruins of the cathedral of Jesus Heart and held his body flush between two damaged pillars in the facade for a couple of minutes as several bullets hit the opposite side of the cathedral. Echoes of the fired shots got caught in the dome and rang out like mutated bells.
Cidro’s mother used to take him here on Sundays when she was alive. Now Jesus Heart had a huge hole in its center, blown straight through with a rocket-propelled grenade. He never liked going to mass but he liked the church itself, the candles and incense and music. They would travel by tramway in the early morning and he remembered liking that too because she never let go of his hand. The National Library went next, another monument towering in his memories of innocence. They burned it to the ground. All those books he had spent his afternoons with between school and his music lesson, adventure stories mostly; The Arabian Nights, The Iliad and Odyssey, Le Morte d’Arthur, Robinson Crusoe, gone.
He moved on, staying close to the crumbled stones. Dim candlelight ebbed through the slits of her barricaded windows on the fourth floor. When he past her door he heard muffled laughter. Laughter, funny how it sounded so foreign, being the one universal language next to tears. He stopped, wishing to knock, to say something or simply try to smile.
There was little coal but he lit the stove anyway, promising himself he would make it to the market on time tomorrow. Night fell fast and he moved about his apartment in the isolated, sapphire colored light from the stove for a while, preparing the place for the evening. When the shelling became routine he had torn off the bathroom door and switched its position with the pretty, tapestry drapes that hung over the one long window facing the street. They were ancient drapes, his Bosnian grandmother’s from the 50’s or something. He poured a shot glass full of kerosene into the base of his lamp and sprinkled it with a pinch of salt to make the fuel last longer. There was a knock at the door. He wished it might be the girl, he could offer her something, an egg. It was Grebo, from across the hall. He had an open bottle of red wine in his hand. Cidro set the table with two glasses and two plates and fried the eggs over the coals. Grebo kept talking. They ate and drank very slowly. After some time Cidro began to listen to him and realized he was pontificating on his grand plan for escape. He had heard it often enough before, but this time his neighbor’s ideas seemed to be making some sense. He gazed intensely into the man’s blue eyes as he spoke, watching them bounce like two umbrageous little balls beneath his wild, curly, reddish graying hair. There were many holes in ‘the plan,’ but overall, his ideas did not seem as far fetched as they had been in the past.
Salim Grebo was 30 years older than Cidro and was living across the hall thirteen years ago when the Lemieux family moved in. He had always felt closer to him than his own father. He learned sometime ago that Grebo had had an affair with his mother and he remembered how grief stricken their neighbor was at her funeral. Yes, that day especially, Salim seemed to understand what Cidro was going through, even more so than himself at the turbulent age of 15. It seemed so far away. His mother. Far away as France, the place he was born, as Paris, the city where he spent a very happy childhood.
Salim asked for a piece of bread to clear the thin film of yolk off his plate. Cidro shook his head. “I didn’t get to the market in time today.”
“A piece of bread! One crumb!” Grebo stood, taking the bottle of wine, now more than half empty, in his hand and went out, leaving the door open behind him. He returned in several minutes with the girl from the fourth floor. One of the skeletons was with her. She had black bread and Kashkaval cheese and her friend had hashish. The four of them sat, eating, drinking and smoking at once. They spoke of objects and places in the neighborhood that had been annihilated. A few first names were mentioned: the generous man who ran the local kiosk; if he liked your style of conversation you got a free newspaper or a pack of gum, the odd woman in the red coat who got off the bus at six a.m. sharp, even on Sundays, and the dare devil little boy who used to do tricks with his bike in the square. Cidro asked the girl about her play and she grew uneasy. Her friend began to answer the question, going into lengthy detail about the plot and even quoting, with pretentious affectations, certain passages in which, it was obvious, he had a leading role. Cidro watched the girl’s downcast eyes as her friend spoke. She was so pretty, he thought. But he didn’t like her really. He didn’t think he liked her soul. They finished the spliff and talked some more but did not sit up late. After everyone was gone he played as if he himself had also left and the few objects that caught his attention in the room; the dirty plates and glasses, the glowing red embers of coal in the stove, his three favorite books and the two thin blankets on his bed that he never made, all appeared foreign. He felt as if he were in a stranger’s home in a strange land. He bit his lip and stared at his soft shadow on the panels of the faded, raspberry painted walls. His posture looked monstrous over the cello like some kind of half man, half beast choking a giant insect. The rumpled sheets on his bed were in the shape of a swan. He imagined a swan gliding in a pool of clear blue water. There was a shot outside in the distance. The water became black.
London San Francisco
by Elizabeth McKague
The sky was silver, his geraniums dusted with dew, and the car alarm that had barked incessantly through the hollow of dawn was once again scowling above the shuffling roads at 8:30 that morning. He went into his tiny bathroom and looked in the mirror. He desperately needed a haircut and shrieked when he grabbed the back of his hair and could nearly make a ponytail with that secondary school mullet he had going on. He made coffee and eggs, then showered but decided not to shave. A trip to the salon would be enough for one day. If you had to place Paul Wise on a scale between the woodcutter and the metro-sexual, he’d fall just below the central point on the side of the woodcutter.
“Green.” He called it.
There were several stylists he’d gone to in the past and they always, always fucked up. A few days ago on a whim, he’d taken Harrow Road home from a pub in Chelsea instead of grazing through a maze of back streets to avoid it as he usually did. That night he subconsciously registered seeing a new salon that had just opened up. It had been closed at that hour but for some reason he had processed the notion that perhaps it was unpretentious, almost needy and possibly a bit serene. When he got there that afternoon, the impression proved misleading. Regardless, he waited in the fake cowhide chair for his name to be called out by a pregnant, anorexic receptionist with iridescent green eye shadow. She led him to a second room in the back of the establishment that he was not aware existed, where a pretty Palestinian girl was spritzing a man’s hair in one chair, while an older man with a silver pony tail himself, was blow drying what cotton pink fibers were left upon the head of an 80 year old woman. If he got the guy, he’d request the girl. That’s how it was, no ifs ands or buts. Spritzing finished, the Palestinian girl smiled at him and waved him to her chair. It was a rather magnetic experience as he sat down, stared into the mirror and saw her standing there behind him, mouthing “oohs,” and “ahs,” repetitive as a car alarm, with her sharp, slender fingers rousing through his hair.
Twice, he told her twice, exactly what he wanted. Yet like every single time before, three and a half raucous house-music tracks and twelve pound sterlings later, including the tip, he was back out on Harrow road with a head that belonged to the kind of man he thought the entire planet should ignore. He put his hands in his pockets and stepped out of the way of two small children with post-childhood faces who were aggressively trying to push each other into the slow moving traffic. An old lady, to avoid being knocked over, slowly orbited their world. She was dragging a tartan shopping trolley behind her with a discarded, blue, off license carrier bag trapped underneath one wheel, creating a sound like sandpaper against the gray pavement. Across the road at a bus stop slapped flush to the doors of a KFC, the dark, dejected faces of unemployed men ate burgers from a chip shop further along the way. Rejected lettuce leaves lay alongside their spit polished trainers. Paul tried to remember the old joke but couldn't quite. Just the punch line; ninety percent of London.
He walked on until he reached a second hand furniture shop, a place that sold mostly outdated office furniture and cheap single mattresses. Seeking a moment of solace he went inside. After rummaging through the one plastic tray of books they had to offer, he found a novel by Herta Muller. He decided to buy it. He was fond of the author, but the real reason he spent his last pound, fifty pence on the book was because the picture of her on the inside jacket made him think he could possibly look almost like her in thirty years. Maybe it was something to do with the hair. The hair he had up until half an hour ago. He stepped out of the shop reading the back cover and when he looked up he saw the most bazaar sight he’d ever seen in London. A young man with naturally bleached blond hair, wearing beach shorts and sandals was walking down the street carrying a surfboard.
“Where does he think he's going dressed like that?” He heard someone say.
Nostalgically amused, Paul turned onto Ladbroke Grove, deciding to traverse a newfound maze back to Salem Road. The surfboard spectacle reminded him of an afternoon he spent in Paris three years ago. It was an uncomfortably hot and humid day. He took the bus from his not so shoddy pension room in the Latin Quarter to Père Lâchais cemetery. He had no interest at all in visiting the famous graves of artists, composers or writers, and least of all, the haunt of Jim Morrison. Yet by chance he happened upon it and had to admire the group of teenyboppers in their tank tops and shorts, smoking joints and drinking cheap wine out of the bottle, mourning the death of their hero. He’d gone there to feel cool amongst the cold, sculpted stones, to stroll beneath the shade of hazelnut and ash trees, and to escape the heavy aesthetic demands of the most beautiful city he’d thus far visited in the world.
After some hours he passed through the gate and waited at the bus stop on the Avenue Gambetta. Many minutes passed. Few people were out because of the dead heat. Finally, he saw a large, gray mass moving far down the street but soon realized that it was going too slow to be a bus. He put on his eyeglasses and watched as the body came closer. It was an elephant. He thought he was hallucinating or that perhaps he’d come out of his walk amongst the dead and entered some kind of surreal dream. Paul lit a cigarette and stood up straight and tall, bewildered as hell, as the beast thundered past. It was wearing a headdress made of bells and a woman in a pink and red sari sat poised, dripping with sweat, atop its back. Two boys followed along its side, poking the animal with aluminum poles. A banner was stretched between the boys, advertising the name of a new Indian restaurant.
Elaina was also in Paris that summer and in Père Lâchais as well, on that exact same day and during the same hours. Of course she’d gone there specifically to visit the graves: Proust, Wilde, Apollinaire, Eluard, Balzac and especially Abelard and Heloise. She’d learned one motto as a writer, “You don’t read the work; you inherit the work.”
So she felt akin to these guys and it had become a ritual to pay her respects. Yet as usual, even though she’d visited the grounds many times before, she got lost and ended up asking one of the stoned teenyboppers how to get out. It was Paul Wise’s first and only trip to the place that day and he found his way back onto the street quite with ease. The historical fact is that if Elaina had left Nerval’s tomb and headed for Musset instead of Molière, she would have reached the same bus stop at exactly the same time as Paul, and stood beside him, consumed with awe, as the elephant plodded down the avenue.
Navel of the Sea
by Elizabeth McKague
St. Petersburg, Russia, December in the year of 1800
Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff wrapped his red wool scarf around his neck up to his ears and turned his back on the Winter Palace that appeared to be floating upon a slate of green grime. In the distance, the spindly, black wooden mast poles of ships anchored in the harbor of the River Neva, appeared like the spokes of a giant iron fence piercing through the icy sky. He was hurrying. He was hungry and wanted to reach home before the unpredictable descending of ominous fog. It was nearly two o’clock. Night would begin at three and if the shadows came, he’d be lost.
He crossed a wide bridge over the Moika canal and entered the fervent activity of the Sennaya Ploschad, a large market nick named, the Hay Square, where, at that hour, all of St. Petersburg; peasants, merchants, gentry and aristocracy seemed to be gathered. Valentin discreetly eyed the women of nobility in their long fur coats, buying flowers or muffs, thinking what a life they must lead. He was secretly fascinated as well by the occasional military man whose dappled horse would slosh through the wet, snowy lot, his green Prussian styled uniform a reminder of the so-called mad Tsar, Paul I, and this new, supposed, ‘City of Order.’
Perhaps it was a confusing period in Russian history, but Valentin, as most of his class, cared little for politics. He was a starving musician and had two projects at the forefront of his mind: composition and survival. Sometimes the instinct for female company preoccupied his thoughts but he was intelligent enough to decipher the difference between need and desire, and so, unlike his closest friend Rastislav who was always broke by either gambling or the brothels, had the discipline to shake it off.
With freezing bare hands, he opened his empty violin case and neatly filled it with the carrots, onions and potatoes he’d just bought. The district where he resided, south east of the Hay Square, was a dubious, poverty stricken den of hardship and crime and Valentin had learned that the alley orphans would sooner steal a man’s sack of potatoes than a hand crafted violin worth a thousand rubles.
Just as he was finally crossing the Kameny Bridge over the Griboedov Canal, it came. That’s how it happened, in an instant the clear air would be flooded with fog so thick that if you put your hand before your face and moved it out an arms length, it would disappear. People got lost in it always for it cloaked all signals; monuments, street signs, storefronts, and even the bluish lights of the oil bulbs in the lampposts were smothered. People lost things in it, lost people in it- children would be separated from their parents and lovers from their beloved. And as with the blindness, so it was for sound. A voice calling out for a disappeared companion traveled only an arms length into the thick, gray robes of impenetrable mist before it was drowned.
Valentin was able to find his house on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa where he rented a small flat on the first floor. When he entered the building he saw Rastislav in the cold foyer, seated atop a short stack of dry fire logs, sipping from a bottle of vodka, just opened, and smoking a cigar.
“I won at roulette.” His friend grinned.
Valentin smiled and shook his head, contradicted by disapproval and envy. He unlocked the door to his tiny two rooms and lit the lamp as Rastislav dragged in the woodpile, tied together with rope. “I’d never thought I’d see the day when I’d be buying firewood. Back in the Ukraine it was unthinkable. You cut your own trees, shot your own bird for the table, skinned your own rabbits to make a coat. That’s how I grew up. Oh, you know this city is killing me, Val.”
The violinist had heard the story often enough before, yet played along, “Then why don’t you go back to the farm?”
Rastislav took a swig from the bottle, “The farm? Aren’t no cards or whores on the farm!”
They lit a fire in the hearth and Valentin put the vegetables in a pot to make a stew then poured a glass of vodka and picked up his violin as his friend tuned his own viola. Despite the man’s debauchery, the tall, robust Ukrainian never ceased to play like the devil. Valentin seriously wondered sometimes if what Rasti (as the loose ladies called him) often said might possibly be true; “Sold my soul, I did... sold my very soul.”
The violinist sighed when he woke in the morning to see the empty vodka bottle, the empty pot of stew and the blankets tossed over the armchair where Rasti had slept the night before. He’d obviously left earlier as the gambling houses opened at eight a.m. Val tidied his room, made tea, washed up and was about to shave when there was a knock on the door. It was just past nine a.m. and his first student for the day was not due until ten. He answered the door in his shirtsleeves with his jaw covered in lather and a towel around his neck, thinking Rastislav had probably forgotten something.
The woman on the other side, a beautiful, lavishly dressed woman in a green velvet dress with a minx shall falling off her shoulders, looked at him for a few seconds before she burst out laughing.
Val stood, self- conscious and somewhat stunned by her presence for her type was rarely seen this side of the Griboedov Canal. “May I help you, Madame?”
She stopped laughing though her fresh, rosy complexion was still lit with tenderness and joy. “Yes. I apologize... you are Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff?”
“Oh good. I’ve finally found you.”
‘A woman like this, looking for me, must be my lucky day!’ He thought and invited her in out of the cold foyer. The heat from the fire last night still warmed his rooms. He excused himself to wash off the lather and put on his waistcoat.
“Can I offer you some coffee?” He placed a cup and his one saucer on the little table beside the armchair where she’d seated herself.
“No, thank you. I’ve come for lessons, Monsieur.”
He cleared his throat. He’d never given lessons to a woman before. “Of course. So, are you a beginner or have you been playing long?”
She laughed genially, heartily. That laugh of hers- already it had become infectious to him.
“Goodness, gracious, no, no, they are not for me. I don’t have a musical bone in my body, but it appears I do in my blood. You see my twelve year-old my son, Mikhail Davidovich, is incredibly gifted. He’s been studying under Yegor Borodin Duskin since he was six, but alas, as you may have heard...”
“Yes, I read it in the papers. A sad loss indeed, Duskin was one of the greatest violinists in St. Petersburg! Ah, well, a full and prosperous life did he lead.”
Ayola made the sign of the cross with her delicate white hand over her lovely bosom and Val stood for a moment in silence to honor the old genius then had to ask, “But Madame... your son- that is quite impressive. Why me?”
She carefully took a letter out of her purse and handed it to him. It read:
My dear Ayola Proniakina zhena Davidovicha,
As you are aware, my days are numbered. Mikhail possesses an innate talent that must not go to waste and I implore you to continue his musical education in my absence. I suggest contacting one of the following violin teachers to take my place:
Alexi Alekseev Berezowsky, Boris Gubinich Popov, Dmitry Ivanovich Kuznetsov, Yury Sviatoslavov Sokoloff or Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff.
Very truly yours,
-Yegor Borodin Duskin
“I see.” Valentin returned the letter, adding, “My name is the last on the list.”
She shrugged, “I must admit, kind sir, that I have tried the others, yet without success. They either haven’t the time or,” she glanced around Val’s small two rooms and lowered her pretty face a bit, “the financial need.”
Valentin was not embarrassed; on the contrary, he was still recovering from the shock that Yegor Duskin even knew that he existed. Therefore, he accepted the position at once.
Aloya stood and handed him a card, “Here is my address. Are you able to come tomorrow to meet Mikhail?”
“At one o’clock?”
He nodded and thanked her as he opened the door then went to his one tiny window, clouded with steam, and watched her carriage drive away.
His ten o’clock student arrived directly. He had two more lessons that day, at twelve and at four, yet did not receive any pay. The boys were from the neighborhood and although their families were caring and decent, they were also very poor. Yet they gave their word, and considering that it was close to Christmas, Val knew from experience that they wouldn’t go back on it. He’d burned Rasti’s single remaining log in the hearth to keep his flat warm throughout the day, but by the end of his final student’s session, his rooms were freezing and he cut the lesson short for fear that the poor boy’s fingers might become frostbitten.
The bells of St. Isaac’s cathedral rang out through the fog at six o’clock and the chimes dimly melted against his windowpane like snowflakes. He peaked outside. It was in fact snowing and as usually happened at that hour, an overwhelming sensation streamed through his red and blue veins and purple arteries, weakened his mind and defenselessly crashed through the mirror of his soul and sent him falling, falling into an abyss of utter loneliness. It happened at six a.m. too, as he laid in his little bed beneath a moth eaten quilt, the agonizing sensation pulsated in his limbs, ached in his muscles and seemed to shatter his bones; loneliness. Each day, twice a day, Valentin not only experienced but succumbed to this terror of knowledge that he was alone in the world, that in the morning in his bed, he had no-one to hold onto and that no-one was there to hold onto him. And when the bells of St. Isaac’s chimed in the evening, it conquered him, the despair that there was no one in the coming of night who was waiting for him.
Val let himself suffer and shivered with cold. He wrapped his red scarf around his shoulders and rosined his bow but his own fingers grew numb and he was forced to place his violin back in its red velvet lined case. His stomach rumbled. His head ached and he wondered if perhaps this gloom of loneliness was nothing more than low blood sugar. He had to get out but had no money. He put on his shabby wool coat and paced his room for warmth in vain. He thought of Aloya’s laughter, her thick black hair, her sparking black eyes, ruby lips, green dress, minx stole and white fur cape and glanced at the address on her card. He knew the area; on the embankment of the Fontanka canal, north of the Mikhailovsky Castle, across from the Summer Gardens. Tomorrow, he decided, he would definitely ask for payment upfront from the Davidovich’s. He paced some more before the ash in the hearth. The armchair! Valentin quickly searched under the cushion, hoping to find a few kopecks that may have fallen out of Rasti’s pockets the night before. Ah ha! Five coins of 50 kopecks each and four rubles. In minutes he was out on the street, joyous at the ticklish wet snow falling lightly on his cheeks. It was a bit of a walk but he knew of a clean tavern with an inexpensive menu in near Sadovaja Square.
The tavern was animated, filled with wintry bodies in wool and furs, and the minute he entered he felt that there couldn’t possibly be a warmer place that night in all of Petersburg. He found a seat at a long wooden table and ordered a steaming bowl of shchi topped with smetana, and a bottle of Meddovukha.
“Cabbage soup garnished with a spoonful of sour cream, a crust of rye bread and a bottle of mead...” He heard a voice next to him say, “Can’t get more Russian than that!”
Val turned and said, “Why, it’s my dear friend ‘khokhol’...” using the somewhat derogatory term for identifying a Ukrainian.
Rastislav slapped the violinist’s back, “Eh... don’t start with that, now, I’m not in as good a mood as yesterday. Lost half on Red 29 and tucked the other half away under Vasilia Laikina’s skirt! But alas, it wasn’t for safe keeping!”
Val slid two rubles toward Rasti on the table, “Get yourself a vodka, friend... it’s your coin anyway, I found it in my armchair.”
And so the two stayed in the cheerful, cozy tavern until midnight when Vasilia Laikina appeared and sat on Rasti’s lap, at which point Valentin rose, went home, and went to sleep, fearing six a.m. when that great, vast, sweeping sensation of isolation and desolation would bury his expansive soul as if beneath a cold, snowy, Siberian plain.
The daily canon shot from the Peter and Paul Fortress boomed across the grey-green Neva River and resounded throughout the Nevsky Prospeck at noon. Anxious to be timely, Val had left his flat early and found himself crossing past a large pink house, numbered 104, on the Pestelya Ulista half an hour before the scheduled appointment. He kept up his brisk pace as his long, thin legs charged forward through the pale blue smoke of his own breath in the chilly air, and was soon backtracking his way along the back yard gate of the Mikhailovsky Castle, a newly constructed haven to house Paul I, the mad Tsar. By mere chance, he caught sight of the Tsar himself, leading his generals in a horseback riding party about the frosted yard. The brown and black horses were of course no different from any other horses, yet there was something about their balance and stride, so stiff and fierce, that seemed to set them apart from the rest of their species. Beyond the glistening white yard loomed the glistening yellowish-orange palace, an architectural wonder, so bizarre and occult, it appeared ominous, mystical almost.
Val crossed a wooden bridge over the Fontanka canal where chunks of ice bobbed in the fast moving current like ancient ruins floating in the death of the aristocracy. He entered the Summer Gardens.
For a moment a golden ray of sunlight shot through the overcast sky and the silent black and gray trunks of birch trees and elms turned crimson as if on fire. For a moment, only. He was the only person in Gardens. The benches were covered with hats made of snow and on the path, side by side footprints belonging perhaps to lovers who had danced out together in the early morning after a delicious night of lovemaking, were now damp and filled with slush.
He passed by the ever radiant statues of Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Queen Christina of Sweden and an array of allegorical figures from classical myths then finally reached the Neva embankment where he leaned on the wrought iron railing adorned with gilded rosettes spanning between pink granite columns.
Valentin stared across the river at the distant marshes and the blurry outlines of the islands. It was where he grew up, where the peasants lived, where the level of poverty for most was far, far below the level he was at now. His mother died giving birth and his father, a simple, caring individual, raised him alone. Vasil Antonoff died when Val was fifteen years of age and upon his deathbed, said to his only son: “Look under the bed.”
Valentin did so and found, inside a dusty leather case with red velvet lining, a violin, hand crafted by his mother’s father in the age of Peter the Great. Now a penniless orphan, stuck on Vasily Island, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff knew not what to do except learn to play the instrument. A considerate neighbor left potatoes and goats milk each morning on the front step of his father’s house and so the boy survived for another year, until he believed he had found his purpose of existence. Then upon review of that fact that no one would notice his absence (except perhaps the neighbor with the goat), he sprightly took a barge across the Neva into Petersburg as a musician one fine springtime day.
That was ten years ago. He was now 26, paid rent for two tolerable rooms of his own, had been recognized by the master Duskin and was on his way to a noble woman’s home to... the appointment! He turned, ran through the Gardens and was climbing the marble stairs of the large pink house on Pestelya Ulitsa and exactly one o’clock.
The door was opened by a butler who asked to take his somewhat threadbare wool coat, frayed red scarf and torn suede gloves, then asked for the young man’s card. Val didn’t have a card, so simply whispered his own name into the butler’s rather large left ear, and henceforth, was properly announced. The violinist crossed the threshold from the tidy foyer into the parlor where Madame Davidovicha sat prettily in a rather baroque styled chair upholstered in ivory colored satin. The room was so warm, so warm he thought that until this moment he had never known warmth before. A grand fire blazed in the hearth and umbrageous shadows flickered on the walls, covered in baby blue fabric. Sweeping, golden velvet drapes hung along the sides of two tall windows clouded by a thin white gloss created by the contrast on either side of the glass panes by heat and frost. Val felt the tiny icicles melt from the tips of his wavy, shoulder length, flaxen blond hair and drip quietly into the pink carpet- so plush it lay like a bed over the parquet. And at the far end of the room he noticed a yet to be decorated, freshly cut Christmas tree.
“Mr. Antonoff- so pleased.” Aloya waved for him to take a seat and continued, “I’m so sorry my husband can’t be here to meet you but he has work. Fedorov is an architect.” She said with pride, “He helped design the Tsar’s new Castle, you know.”
“I didn’t know. I passed by it on my way here, quite a unique mix of styles.”
“Yes, Fedorov worked under the famous architect Bazhenov, a friend of the Tsar’s who shares His Majesty’s odd interest in Martinism.”
“Oh, some sort of ritualistic, esoteric form of Christianity that preaches the fall of man, deprivation of a divine source, mystical processes of return and illumination.”
“And are you and Monsieur Davidovich practitioners of this organization?”
“Oh, heavens no! Fedorov doesn’t care much for religion and me... well, I go to mass on Sunday like everyone else and forget about it for the rest of the week!” She laughed, “Will you have some tea?” She called for her maid to bring in the tea then went on in a lively manner, “Mikhail is upstairs- I’ll take you up soon, but I thought perhaps we should have a bit of a chat first. Yesterday, I realize, we didn’t discuss the particulars.”
“Yes, you know... the money.”
Val nodded, so overcome by the coziness of the room, by her beauty, the butler and the crisp, festive scent of the fir tree that he subconsciously wiped his plan to ask for an advance clean off his slate.
The maid came in with a tray and Val watched Aloya professionally pour the tea out of a pot into two cups made of fine, thin porcelain with a silver lining along the rim and painted with miniature pink roses. As she handed him his cup he thought that he’d never seen anything so lovely and fragile in his life, as that teacup.
Madame Davidovich went on, “Mikhail will need two hours instruction per session and the going rate, I’ve heard, is ten rubles an hour.”
“Very well. Twenty rubles a week.”
“Oh, no! I meant two hours per day, Mister Antonoff.” She crinkled her brow to do the math, “Six days per week, Sunday, of course is excluded, so that will be... one hundred and twenty rubles per week.”
Val, who had just sipped his tea, reached over to set the darling teacup in its saucer on a side table and, stunned by her proposal, accidentally set it too close to the edge. It fell onto the hard wood parquet floor at the border of the pink carpet and broke. He shuddered and stared at the shattered pink roses and silver lining as if the thin porcelain cup had just died. He stood and began to gather up the pieces, “I’m so sorry, Madame. Oh, I am terribly sorry!”
“Please, Monsieur Antonoff, do sit down, Boris will do that.”
In came Boris, the butler, with a broom and dustpan.
“Please, forgive me,” Val felt he would cry, “You may take it out of my salary. I’m so sorry.”
“Take what out of your salary? What are you talking about?”
“The cost of the teacup.”
Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha laughed and laughed and laughed that infectious laugh of hers. “Why, dear Sir, it’s only a cup. I have twenty more like them and three more sets at that.” She stood, “So it’s agreed. One hundred and twenty rubles a week and here- she handed him an envelope that she took out of a red lacquered box that was set atop an end table, “My husband insisted that I pay you half upfront.”
He quietly put the envelope in his pocket and followed her past the newly cut pine tree, through a lavish dining room where the table itself was nearly half the size of his little flat, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway strewn with oriental rugs and into a three room suite where the twelve year old Mikhail Davidovich welcomed his new teacher with a bout of scrutiny that eased in a manner of seconds into genuine benevolence and affection.
After the lesson, as Valentin walked along the Gribeodova Canal, the chilled, dusty, dense late afternoon fog that depressed all of Petersburg seemed to move out of his way as if he were walking through a white light tunnel, made especially for him because he had sixty rubles in his pocket. The thought of returning to his cold little flat made him shudder so he stopped in at the tavern in Sardovaja Square where, not so surprisingly, he found Rastislav sitting in the exact spot as the night before, with Vasilia Laikina still cooing in his ear, her red skirt bobbing over his knees.
Val bought them a round of beer and offered to take the funny couple onto Nevsky Ulista for a proper meal at a decent restaurant.
The bells of St. Isaac’s chimed six times as they entered the restaurant but Val felt only a wave of energy and hope propelling out of his heart into his red and blue veins and purple arteries, not because he had money, but because he was in love with Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha.
The party ordered Baklazhanovaya Ikra, Pelmeni, Draniki, Golubtsy, Borscht, and a bottle of vodka, and toasted to their health.
The next day he arrived at the pink house a bit early, hoping to find the Madame in her parlor but Boris told him she had gone out and somberly led Val upstairs to Mikhail’s quarters.
When the lesson was finished, Mikhail followed his teacher downstairs where they found his mother before the naked tree, opening a wooden crate of ornaments.
“Oh, can Monsieur Antonoff help us? Please, please mother?”
Aloya hugged her son warmly, “I’m sure he has better things to do this afternoon, dear.”
Mikhail raised up his big, blue eyes and Val smiled, “What could possibly be better than decorating a Christmas tree?”
Alas, how his blood pulsed as she passed to him the gold, silver and red little trinkets, their fingers touching again and again!
When Mikhail busied himself at the opposite side of the enormous tree, Val whispered, “I came early today, supposing we might chat over tea.”
She blushed and this time, took his hand and opening it gently, placed an ornate glass angel in his palm, “This one is my favorite. Be careful.”
He hung it on a high branch attentively then stepped back to gaze at it beside her, “So, you don’t have three more sets just like it then?” He teased.
She nudged his shoulder. He closed his eyes and felt as if he could fall. She laughed that laugh that ached in his soul and said, “Come early tomorrow, Monsieur Antonoff... for tea.”
That evening as he lingered on the embankment of the Canal, glaring at a rose petal sunset extending in a pearly atmosphere across the expanse of the city from the Cathedral of St. Nicolas to the Smolny Convent he asked himself, ‘Can it be? Does she reciprocate my feelings?’
Although he still had 40 rubles, he decided to forgo the tavern and stopped at the Hay Square where he ordered firewood to be delivered and bought his usual vegetables to make a stew. Val laughed at the irony that in fact tonight he wished to be alone, more than anything else, to welcome the six o’clock daemon in order to mock it malevolently.
There was a Swiss clock on the mantelpiece in the Davidovich’s salon. As Val sat nervously across from Aloya, who was wearing red... of all colors... red, all the things he’d planned to say to her became absorbed in the methodical tick tock-ing that seemed to synchronize with the beads of moisture forming on the windowpanes.
“How is Mikhail progressing?” Aloya handed him a cup full of tea which he dared to take regardless of his trembling hands.
“He is gifted beyond doubt, Madame.”
“There are no problems with his behavior, then? Duskin would sometimes complain of obstinacy and irritability.”
“I have not encountered such as yet, but you can be assured that my threshold for reactions of that sort is very high. I myself am frustrated beyond...” he stopped for an instant then continued, “The artistic temperament is an un-tamable beast. Alas, in time, one learns to lay down with it peacefully, like the lion and the lamb.”
He searched in her Mediterranean blue eyes for some kind of recognition, creative kinship, for a slice of sympathy but his compassionate gaze was returned only with a vague, vacuous glare. ‘I am the Black Sea,’ he thought, ‘and she is the White Sea. Alas, we live on the opposite sides of this great mass of land and yet sit here together, all warm and rosy.’
“Tell me Monsieur Antonoff-”
“Please call me Valentin.”
“Tell me Valentin, what is it that makes you frustrated?”
“Oh, oh.” He loosened up. Her lovely hands that knew not of artistic passion suddenly appeared as foreign, yet so white they were like porcelain, and he feared that if he ever touched them again as he had yesterday, he would break them. He wanted to say, ‘Ah, Madame Davidovich- your house is filled with heat but the fire in me is made of labor. I am a peasant by stock and I cut down my own trees.’
Instead, he answered, “Pietro Locatelli’s violin concerto opus three. The capricci with their high registers, double-stops and arpeggios that overextend the left hand through passages that demand such wide fingering it drives me mad! Each time I reach the second movement I either freeze or fumble.”
She sipped her tea and her lips curled up.
‘Don’t laugh, oh, please don’t laugh.’ He begged, wordlessly.
She only smiled, “And what happens in the third movement?”
Now he laughed, “Ah! If I can in fact make it to the third movement, I’m complete perfection and I play like a god!”
“Well, that is good to know, Valentin.”
He crinkled his brow.
“For future reference.” She added.
Their eyes met with intensity. In his imagination the clock stopped ticking and he laid her down upon the plush pink carpet and... and...
“I believe it’s time for Mikhail’s lesson.” She rose, “You can show yourself upstairs?”
He nodded, picked up his violin case and as he passed her she whispered, “Until tomorrow, for tea.”
He arrived the following day at 12:30. Boris took his shabby coat, scarf and gloves. Although he still had 35 rubles, his tormented mind or heart (he had yet to understand which), occupied all his time outside of the pink house and hadn’t the reserve to shop. His name was announced with a rather dreary, curt manner by the sterile butler but Valentin was not piqued for he assumed all butlers were by nature, reserved and void of character.
Aloya was seated in the ivory upholstered chair, her white hands resting daintily on its birch wood arms, carved at the ends with rosebuds rubbed with a gold gilt sheen. He had the impulse to rush up and bend before her upon one knee but there were two other females present in the drawing room. He merely glanced at them and sighed with his moist gaze into Aloya’s blue eyes.
“Monsieur Antonoff, I present to you Inessa Nikitichna Babinskina.”
Val bowed before a girl of perhaps twenty years of age whose complexion was the color of fresh milk and whose thick golden hair had the look and texture of a lion’s mane. She was no doubt seductively attractive, yet he sincerely showed absolutely no interest in her ravishing youth and the corners of his lips tightened almost with disdain.
Inessa did not notice this and stretched out the back of her hand flirtatiously for him to kiss.
Aloya proceeded to introduce, “Tatyana Alekseeva zhena Kanadtseva,” a lady obviously closer to his own age but also ten years younger than her hostess. She was also rather stunning, especially because she had green eyes and a very slim waist, yet Val kissed her hand with a posture of neutrality and artificial deference, much like the perpetual mask worn by Boris.
Aloya had obviously invited the two women to test him. He sat with them, drank tea from the delicate teacup, ate a few tiny cucumber sandwiches off the silver platter, answered their questions about his music, laughed at the naive girl with the lion’s mane’s infantile jokes and pretended to be enlightened by Tatyana Alekseeva zhena Kanadtseva’s banal philosophical insights, all the while sharing his entire heart, his entire being- with Aloya alone through the soft expression in his eyes and lips and fiery cheeks.
At last, after a relative amount of coaxing, Valentin consented to play for the ladies before heading upstairs to the lesson. He chose The Devil’s Trill, by Guseppe Tartini; a composition so radically impassioned by fury that when he left the parlor, Aloya’s guests were blushing.
The next day was Sunday. On Monday he was unsure whether or not he should arrive early as on Saturday they had been prevented a private conversation by her company. He decided against it and was passing the tall iron gates surrounding the back yard of Mikhailovsky Castle at five minutes to one when he saw Aloya rushing toward him, her white fur cape striking the wind. He had noticed the sky on his walk there, it was strangely translucent with crinkled strings of powdery blue, orange, yellow, and green tangled inside it like the dome of an opal. She ran to him and nearly fell at his feet, pushed by the heavy, abrasive wind. He caught her in his arms.
“Why didn’t you come? I was waiting.”
The desperation in her voice frightened him.
“I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know...”
“How can you not know? Oh, Valentin!” Aloya cried, pressing her face in his hands.
He pressed her against the wrought iron spokes of the Castle gate and kissed her lips vehemently with ardent lust.
But no, that’s not how it happened. As Valentin was passing the tall iron gates surrounding the back yard of Mikhailovsky Castle at five minutes to one, he saw Aloya Davidovicha walking casually toward him, her white fur cape flying in the wind. He had noticed the sky on his walk there, it was strangely translucent with veins of powdery blue, orange, yellow, and green tangled inside it like the dome of an opal. As their paths crossed, she stopped tactfully on the icy sidewalk and uttered in a demure overtone, “You didn’t come. I waited.”
“I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if... Shall I come tomorrow?”
She adjusted her minx wrap about her shoulders, “If you like.”
Their eyes met.
She walked on, “Excuse me. I have an appointment at the drapers.”
For the next three days they met for tea. On Wednesday she had more friends over but the other times they were alone. He never saw Monsieur Davidovich at all. Once she merely mentioned, “He’s a very busy man,” and Val asked no more questions. Of course each day was at once a torment and a joy for him and each time she laughed, which she often did, his soul burst out of his body and circled the wintry ether.
On Thursday, before he went up to Master Mikhail’s quarters, as he knelt to kiss her hand, which had become their little custom, he whispered, “Until tomorrow.”
“Oh, Valentin, but tomorrow is New Years Eve, then Christmas a week away and you see, I discussed Mikhail’s schedule with my husband and we are giving him a two week holiday from all his lessons. So, I... I won’t be seeing you until the ninth of January.”
He lowered his eyes. She could see how painful the news was for him and added, “Nevertheless, you’ll receive half your normal wages, as a Christmas present.”
He stood, “It’s not about the money, Madame.” And he climbed the stairs quietly.
On New Years Eve Val went with Rastislov to several decadent, decorative parties made up mostly of gamblers and whores. His spirits were low indeed yet after a few glasses of vodka, the absurd merriment surrounding him raised his self confidence and he ended up dancing and drinking and flirting with random prostitutes simply because he sought pleasure.
In the morning, Val woke with a headache and looked out his little window. Snow, fat, fluffy snowflakes falling in layer upon layer. It was beautiful. He lit a fire and decided to spend the holiday alone in his room, composing a concerto for her. He got lost in the music that came from the imagery in his mind of making love to her. At about four o’clock there was a knock on the door, so lost in his music was he that he opened the door truly expecting to see her there, her white arms reaching out of her white fur cape for an embrace.
Alas, it was one of his students from the neighborhood whose parents owed him a significant amount of rubles. The boy held out a tray of Bobal’ki, “For you, Sir. Happy New Year.”
Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff stared at the small plate of biscuits glazed with honey and poppy seeds and felt that he would weep. “Thank you, Pasha. Merry Christmas.”
He closed the door, set the sweet breads on the table and did weep, with his bow stroking the strings of his violin on the first day of the year 1801.
The Hay Square was swarming with activity on January 2nd. Val crossed the canals with his empty violin case, smiling at smoking chimneystacks capped with freshly fallen snow, bubbling out from the rooftops of houses. Everyone seemed to be out for a drive in their likhachs, the wheels and horse hoof prints crushing to black, the powdery white roads. He stocked up on vegetables and grains as he intended to lock himself in his little flat for the week and finish the concerto he had begun, entitled, “Aloya.”
He worked for two days in peace (save the six o’clock tremors), burning logs in the hearth and making oatmeal and stews. The solitude and the work loved each other perfectly, and the romance of his own music, enticed by his longing and fervor, became more real to him than the aching silence he was forced to endure without her.
He hoped Vasilia Laikina skirts would keep Rastislov entertained for he didn’t desire interruptions. Nevertheless, on Tuesday night at ten minutes to six, the khokhol was at his doorstep, a leg of mutton and a bottle of vodka in hand.
“Roulette?” Val let him in.
“Sem’ odinnadtstat. Dice, can you believe it? I never win at dice!” Rasti threw the lamb on the fire, “Do have any rosemary or thyme? It’s good with rosemary.”
Val poured two glasses, “I have salt and pepper my friend.”
The smell of the roast filled his two rooms the following morning. Rasti made coffee then took his leave to only the devil knows where. Val tidied up, washed, shaved and returned to his composition. The chromatics in the second movement were too bold for the grave tempo and the harmonics in the allegro maestro passages at the end with its double stop thirds... no, no, no, the harmonics were all wrong and he must find space to add some pizzicato. He sat plucking the strings with his fingers.
There was knock at his door. Val sighed, probably Rasti or perhaps another plate of Bobal’ki from a neighbor.
It was she.
He was stunned.
“May I come in?”
“Yes, of course.”
She entered and stood blankly for a moment then took off her white fur, “My, it’s rather toasty in here.”
He took her cape and with great care, draped it over the armchair. “Would you like some pastry?” He quickly grabbed the plate of biscuits and held it out to her, “Or I can make coffee,” he took the kettle from the hook by the hearth.
“Nothing. Thank you.”
“I’m glad to see you Madame.”
“And I you.”
They stood silently embarrassed for some time. The shattered bits of burning wood in the fireplace crackled, gleaming red. They both began to speak at once but stopped and finally, the awkward tension in that hot, small room with its triple shaded, soft green wallpapered walls of green birds on darker green branches, ceased when their eyes met, moistened by desire.
“I couldn’t live...” She began.
She went to stand before the slow fire and spoke with her back turned to him. “Through all the holiday parties and dinners, family and friends, all I could think of, all I wanted...”
Valentin went to her and the instant she turned her face to him he kissed the tears streaming down her flushed cheeks then her lips, as if in a dream, his lips to hers ardently.
She undressed, let down her long, wavy black hair and lay on his bed. For the time of a single, ringing endnote he just looked at her. For the time of the silence before the applause he stood astonished at the genius and beauty he saw.
“You are a work of art, Aloya.” He whispered.
Her blue eyes smiled, blinking, and he went to her as he’d never went anywhere ever before.
The bells of St. Issac’s chimed as he lay on his back, naked beside her, breathing deep, blissful breaths and he told her, “You are the angel who has chased away my daemons.”
She kissed his shoulder, her long hair tickling his bare chest, “An artist without daemons- whoever heard of such a thing?”
“Well,” he sighed, “For the time being. For this hour, anyway, I am merely, wholly, just a man.”
Her lips met his and he fucked her again. Adagietto, Allegretto, Vivacissimo!
She cried and then laughed, “Well, you certainly were right!”
Her laughter piercing his soul, he rose and poured two glasses of vodka, “About what?”
“By the time you make it to the third movement, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff plays like a god!”
He laughed also and they drank.
She dressed. “I must go.”
“I understand.” He handed her the white fur, “I wish I could say... tomorrow.”
“It’s impossible.” She kissed him again. “I’ll write to you.” Her blue eyes twinkled and she left. He went to the window and watched her carriage drive away.
The next morning as Val lay awake in his bed, unable to abandon the lingering flowery scent of her eau’ de cologne, the image of her long hair on his pillow, her hands stroking his flaxen blond hair, her perfect breasts and dark nipples and unable not to repetitively re-envision the moment she spread her legs and let him in. There was a knock at his door. He leapt from beneath the moth eaten blankets and put on a robe. The wooden floorboards were so cold he thought his bare feet would stick to them. ‘It is she! It must be she!’
He opened the door. It was a messenger who politely handed him a letter.
But it wasn’t a letter. It was an invitation.
Dear Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff,
You are cordially invited to our holiday feast at 104 Pestelya Ulista, at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Monsieur and Madame Fedorov Malinin Davidovich
At first he was disappointed but on second thought, he felt inspired. It was ideal; he’d finish the concerto and play it before everyone, even her husband, as a gift. No one need know it had been written especially for Aloya and no one would know except her. Only she would understand the arrangement: Adagietoo, Allegretto, Vivacissimo!
The rest of the week flew by and he arrived at the pink house promptly. As Boris took his new, second hand suede coat lined with fluffy white wool, his brand new leather gloves and tattered red scarf that Val had become too fond of to replace, the butler smiled somewhat sinisterly.
“Thank you Boris.” He said.
“You’re very welcome, Sir.”
He entered the parlor. Tiny candles illuminated the enormous fir tree. Parties of about a dozen or so personages were mingling in small groups with tall fluted glasses filled with a pale gold colored liquid in their hands.
“Monsieur Antonoff!” Mikhail rather magically appeared directly before him, “Monsieur Antonoff, come and see what Grandfather Frost has given me as a present!” The boy excitedly grabbed his teacher’s hand and pulled him to the far side of the room, weaving through the gathering like a jackrabbit being chased through a bush by a fox. From beneath the Christmas tree, Mikhail retrieved a modern violin, handcrafted in Italy. Val examined it, “Why, it is superb, Mikhail. You are very lucky and with your talent, you certainly deserve such a treasure.”
The boy’s shoulders buckled with pride and glee, “Shall we play? After the dinner, shall we play a duet?”
“Yes, yes of course, if you wish.” Val turned towards the guests. He noticed Inessa and Tatyana who obviously had been watching him intently, and excused himself from the excited, joyous lad to greet them.
They blushed consecutively at his approach and lifted their tall glasses to their glossy lips.
“I say, what is that you are drinking?” He asked.
“Champagne!” Blurted Inessa.
“Davidovich had it shipped in from France.” Tatyana, with an elitist-intellectual air, explained.
“Oh, it’s so lively, so bubbly!” Inessa giggled.
A lackey came by with a serving tray and Val took a glass. “Mmm, it’s very nice indeed.”
“Have you ever tasted anything so lovely?” A rosy glow concentrically spread on each side of Inessa’s fresh complexion, from her nose to her lion’s mane.
He took another sip and couldn’t help but remark, with a wide, sensuous grin, “But once, dear ladies, I did taste something lovelier.”
He drank and conversed with the two prettiest girls at the party and although he did not see Aloya, he knew that eventually she would come to him.
And sooner than later, spurned on by jealousy, she appeared in a black velvet gown trimmed with gold lace and sparkling, silver buttons. Her blue eyes shone like the sapphire stars of another world that had suddenly been revealed above winter’s dark palette of Russian sky.
“Monsieur Antonoff.” With one look she sucked him up into her own, lofty, sapphire ether. “So glad you could come.”
He bowed and kissed the back of her hand, while playfully and discreetly, tugging at her wedding ring as if to pull it off.
An older couple, Mr. and Mrs. something ‘anoff’, or ‘ovich’, or ‘enlin’, joined their little group. Minutes passed and he knew not of what he spoke or listened to, for all could say in his mind were words related to their lovemaking and all he could hear was the repetition of an accelerating, climaxing tempo. The champagne plunged into his heart. The parlor with its pink carpet and gold drapes that he’d known with such intimacy became as absurd as a circus tent and finally, after Mikhail announced that the first star had appeared in the black night sky, Boris loudly proclaimed those propitious words, “Dinner is served, Madame.”
They entered the elegant dining room where small bundles of hay had been swept symbolically into the corners. Val was seated on the right side of Mikhail at whose left side sat Fedorov, at the head of the long table covered with the traditional white cloth. He was embarrassed. As was customary, Aloya must have arranged the seating and he wondered, why such a scheme? He recalled a frequent saying of Rasti’s, “Woman speak two languages, one of which is verbal.”
Regardless, for the first time Val got to get a good look at her husband. He was 40 or a bit older and a few inches taller than the violinist who stood just below six feet. He had broad shoulders and a fine build for a man who indubitably never missed a meal. His slightly balding head of finely combed hair was the same color as Val’s, except for the silver speckles in his long sideburns and the white streaks in his meticulously trimmed moustache and beard. His face was unquestionably handsome yet his eyes lacked imagination and his brow and nose lacked character. His lips were tight as two taught ropes, browned by years and years of seriousness or possibly, languid prayer.
Because he had already chosen to do so, Valentin disliked the man before he was even introduced, but as they all sat down to dinner, the way Fedorov Malinin Davidovich looked into his dear son’s eyes, with such paternal love and sincere care that showed a kind of closeness Val had never known with his own father, the violinist dared to be tender with his heart and put away the inevitable predisposition of a secret lover’s envy.
Then, as Fedorov stood to say the Lord’s Prayer, Val became so touched by the meaning of the season that he almost felt genuine affection for host/rival. Perhaps, he thought, not unlike Mikhail’s conversion from defensive scrutiny into pure acceptance when he first met his new music teacher. Aloya was seated at the other end of the candlelit table and it was impossible to even slightly turn his head to look at her beyond the other six guests lined up at his elbow. But after the prayer, he had the chance to as she stood and went round, drawing the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead with a finger dipped in honey. When she drew Val’s cross, she cleverly and oh so swiftly let her fingertip slip down to his lips which he dared to pucker up as if for a kiss.
The kutya was served and eleven dishes followed to represent the twelve apostles: mushroom soup, pickled cucumbers, black caviar, kidney beans, fried salmon, pirozhki stuffed with cabbage and egg, potato pancakes, lentin bread dipped in honey and chopped garlic, beet salad, dried fruits and for desert, bobal’ki, which Val passed on as he’d been so wrapped up in his composition, he’d forgotten to make his stews for the past few days and had nibbled away at the kind neighbor’s gift. Yet he did accept a glass of cognac that he raised with the others when Fedorov stood and pronounced, “S Rozhdestrom!” And as he did so, at last turned to the other end of the table to meet the direct, merry gaze of his lover’s twilight blue eyes.
Fedorov patted his son’s shoulder, “And now for the entertainment.”
“Can Monsieur Antonoff join me in a duet, father?” The boy whispered as the party began to move back into the parlor.
“That is an excellent idea. I do think I should hear this young man play, after all, he is your teacher.”
Mikhail and Valentin quickly discussed what piece to play and decided on Antonin Vranicky’s Variations, Opus 7.
Valentin was lifting his own violin out of the red velvet lining when Mikhail appeared before him holding his old violin.
“What about your new Italian beauty?” Val asked.
The boy shrugged timidly, “I’m not used to it yet.”
“Ah, I see. Do you mind if I play it?”
“Oh, please do. I’d be honored.” Mikhail gave it to him.
He tuned it in D minor and they practiced for a few minutes in the hall that led to the stair, then returned to the parlor and stood proudly erect before the audience.
The performance was flawless and above the thunderous clapping, Val heard Fedorov yell, “Bravo! Bravo!”
It gave him courage to make his request, “Monsieur Davidovich, if you’ll allow it, I have composed a new piece of my own that I’d like to play for your family and friends on this gracious day as my gift.”
“By all means, Maestro. How very kind.”
Val half bowed, lifted his bow and played Aloya, already nearly as much in love with the Italian instrument as he was with the namesake of his composition. He did not look at her once, nor at anyone in the room, for when his eyes were not focused on the strings, they lifted up towards the heavens. Yet he knew she was watching him and that the single tear that fell from her lovesick blue eyes during the first movement turned into four during the second, and by the time he was playing ‘like a god’, her cheeks were as salty and red as the leftover beet salad.
As the last note echoed through the silence, in that moment of suspension before the applause, he thought, “A man has two languages- one of which is eternal.”
The night sky was clear as he walked home, warm in his new coat, his stomach warmed by good food, his brain heated by cognac and his artistic temperament fired up with pride.
Pride. Pride. He woke the next morning in a sweat. Pride that would soon become hubris! What was he doing? How could he? Fedorov was a good father and Mikhail an angel with such talent! No, no, it must end. How could he, a poor peasant from the islands, disrupt the unity of such a decent family? He would end it, he would tell her tomorrow at tea before the lesson.
Alas, that very night at ten to six, there was a knock on his door.
She was wearing the same green dress she had on the day he first met her. Aloya wafted through the door like a breeze and threw her white fur and minx stole on the armchair. “I told Fedorov I was going to visit my Aunt in the Ligovskij Prospeck, so I have hours as it’s at the other end of the city.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, “I loved your piece. Oh, how I loved it! To me... it was to me, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was. But I’ve been thinking and...”
She kissed him and put those lovely white fingers of hers through his messy locks, “Oh, you mustn’t do that. No thinking. No, no, no, just loving and lovemaking.”
Her face, her body, her open affection and her green dress falling off over her hips erased whatever thoughts he did in fact have and he couldn’t refuse. The crisis of her presence and bounty overwhelmed his sense of morality and he ravished her right there, before the last log burning in the hearth, atop her white fur cloak that with one quick movement he tossed down upon the cold, hard wood floor.
“Tea at half past noon!” Her transmittable laughter whirled spasmodically round and round as she put on her green dress, as if one of the little green birds on his wallpaper had sprung to life only to find itself trapped inside his two rooms.
He did not go to the frosted window to watch her likhach drive off. Instead, he sat naked on his bed before the red embers in the hearth and poured himself a glass of the cognac that had been delivered that afternoon as a present from Fedorov Malinin Davidovich.
And so the affair continued on: circumspect innuendos housed by the plushy carpeted parlor and tenuous teacups in the afternoons, and two or three times a week, a knock on his door in the evening hours.
“Oh, my poor Aunt in the Ligovskij Prospeck!” She’d dramatize as she whipped off her muff and minx onto the armchair, “My husband sends his wishes.”
Then the laugh and the intoxication of flesh against flesh throughout the inner space of frozen January and the dank, mutably gray tones of February. And so, the nights when Val wasn’t burying his scruples in melancholy compositions or cognac, he buried his pride between her thighs.
Inevitably the day occurred when Rastislov’s forceful knuckles rattled on Val’s door just as Aloya was climbing her ecstatic heights. The knocking stopped abruptly but returned a half hour later. The khokhol was greeted by the blushing violinist and entered the steamy room to see the noble woman facing a small round mirror above the mantle to pin up the long, black ringlets of her hair. Rasti’s smile spread from ear to ear as he set down the food and drink he’d brought.
Val introduced Madame Davidovicha and added, “Who was just leaving.”
Rasti poured vodka into three glasses and unwrapped a roasted chicken as he said, “The more the merrier is always my motto,” before he turned to Val and whispered, “Whist. Can you believe it? I never win at whist.”
Aloya eyed the tall, dark Ukrainian up and down and back again. “Who said I was leaving? Yes, thank you, Rastislov Alekseev Slivka, I’ll have a glass of that.”
Perhaps she was bored. The pink house, the angelic son, respected husband, silly girlfriends, stanch butler and dutiful maid; perhaps she wanted something that moved beyond all that? Yet Valentin still could not see a kindred spirit in her jewel-like eyes. He often wondered if she were mocking him but of course there was no reason to, and she may be bored but she certainly was not cruel. Maybe Fedorov had a problem, a male problem... but that didn’t seem likely. Or maybe she preferred his youth and vigor, and he had to admit- his inexperience, yes, her laughter pained him worst of all when she’d find it necessary to show or explain something to him during sex.
All these thoughts were clouding up his brain one day as he was putting vegetables in a pot to make a stew when the most absurd of all answers popped up before him... perhaps she loved him?
On March 12th, Valentin arrived at the pink house and was let in by Aloya herself. Mikhail was unfortunately ill with a minor cold and Boris had gone out to get medicine. The maid was busy making soup in the kitchen and they found themselves completely alone together in the parlor.
“Will you have seat, Monsieur Antonoff? Shall I ring for tea?” She spoke tensely, licentiously.
The privacy and the plush pink carpet aroused him. Her white hands trembled. He took her in his arms, pushed back a lock of black hair that had fallen over her face and kissed her. The front door opened and Monsieur Davidovich stood in the entranceway from the foyer to the parlor, pale as a ghost.
The lovers separated and looked at him, speechlessly.
“The Tsar is dead.” He said quietly, “The Tsar has been assassinated, murdered in his own bed.”
Valentin grabbed his violin and dared not look Aloya in the eye as he swept past her husband and out the door. Fedorov had certainly seen them. It was over.
The violinist did not return to 104 Pestelya Ulista and when he dreamt, which he often did, of the days lost when he’d hurry to get there at 12:30, he saw himself passing the back yard of the Mikhailovsky Castle where the new black iron gates were covered in rust. And when he dreamt of her green dress draped over his armchair, it turned into a pool of water and then into a pool of blood.
He took on the neighborhood students again, composed, drank with Rasti, cooked vegetables and like everyone else in Petersburg, awaited the coming of spring. When it did come, Valentin taught the neighborhood students, composed, drank with Rasti, cooked vegetables and stayed clear of the Pestelya Ulista, the Mikhailovsky Castle and the Summer Gardens. Paul the First’s son Alexander took the throne and a sweeter zeitgeist filled the air. Val soon found that he missed the devoted musician’s soul of the sensitive, 12 year old Mikhail more than the bewitching, supernatural laughter of the child’s stone-blue eyed mother. She hadn’t loved him. She had used him. And now, he was free.
At the end of May, on the first aurora of the first day of Beliye Nochi, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff woke at six a.m. on a park bench in the Summer Gardens. Along with the entire population of St. Petersburg, Val had gone out with Rasti the night before to celebrate the onset of the White Nights of summer, a period that would last until mid July of ceaseless light in which dusk meets dawn at midnight. They caroused the streets, a bottle each in hand, cheering at the acrobats and jugglers parading in their costumes, and laughing at the sudden in flux of a thousand stray cats that had been hiding in the jackets of the alley orphans all winter, and finally been set free to prowl the streets.
They drank with strangers under the rising pearl moon that hung in the hot air against a backdrop of butterscotch, peach and violet colored clouds that held the refection of the disappearing sun like a perpetual mirror of light. Drunk, they rested against monuments and statues, and became, like the spires, bridges, figures and sails, silhouettes all against the stars blinking through the lustrous blue-silver glow of the shades of non-existent night. And finally, having traversed Nevsky Prospeck, they walked, or rather stumbled, North along the Fontanka Canal, sighing at the romance of splendidly dressed men in white linen suits and beautiful women in flowing, gossamer yellow or black silk gowns who had spent the entire white night, arm in arm, strolling the embankments of the latticework of tributaries streaming through the city in glistening, blue luminosity toward the Baltic sea.
Val sat up and inhaled the scent of lilac. The sky was dusted with pink. He watched a squirrel scamper behind a tree. The gates to the park had not yet opened. He must have jumped them in the early hours of morning with Rastislav. He looked around but his friend was nowhere to be found. The vodka still burned in his red and blue veins and his purple arteries felt swollen in a haze. He smoothed his wrinkled jacket, knocked the dirt off his shoes with a stick and walked in post drunken mechanical strides toward the southern gate where a guard who appeared non-regretfully foggy headed as well, let him through.
And there he was, on the Pestelya Ulista, for the first time since the day the mad Tsar had died. He moved slowly. The sky was growing brighter. He felt symmetry with the world. So he stopped before the pink house, numbered 104, and looked up to see her sitting in the frame of a second storey window. Her long black hair was web-like and tousled. Her white hands, white as a ghost’s, rattled on the pane and her blue eyes... he searched her eyes for some sign of recognition, some mnemonic recollection of the bed they had shared, for a slice of sympathy even but his compassionate gaze was returned only with a foreign, vacuous glare as if he had asked the time of day from an animal. She stared straight at him yet her face, much thinner and darker, was void of emotion and her dimmed blue eyes, once as luminous as a white night sky, sank in deep, depressing sockets of fear.
Val stood, watching, waiting, in quiet tears. At last a nurse appeared in the window and benignly took the trembling resemblance of Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha away.
The sky, now languidly smudged with tangerine ink, hovered above him and seemed to drag behind him as he turned the corner and began his way back to Gorokhovaya Ulitsa. He stopped in at the tavern near Sadovaja Square and said farewell to Rastislov then returned to his small flat, packed up the few items of clothing and worth that he owned and with his violin in hand, went to Moscow as he never went anywhere before. Yes, on that day, Valentin Vasil’ev Anotonff went to Moscow- a place where wind and light reverse- a re-invented man.