Category Archives: Fiction

Changing of the Guard

A short story by

Russell Heidorn

 

“Get out of the way, ya old geezer!” the kid yelled as he and several others whizzed by on their skateboards right in front of the supermarket.

 

Gus stepped back, almost dropping the groceries as they sped down the sidewalk. “Darn kids,” he muttered, then laughed at himself for saying something so typical of an old man. He chuckled and continued following the customer out to her car.

 

Sometimes on Saturdays the kids would zip by several times, trying to get him to drop the bags. Eventually Gus would lose his hold and the bags would drop and burst open, spilling their guts over the sidewalk. Dennis would come out and yell at him for being so clumsy. Gus would clean up the mess while Dennis retrieved a fresh supply of groceries and offered a thousand apologies to the customer. All the while, the kids would hang by and laugh.

 

Gus did his best to ignore them. He’d been on this planet for eighty-three years and it’d take a lot more than a bunch of kids to rattle him. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.

 

He placed the bags in the trunk of the lady’s car. “Thank you for shopping at Mason’s”, he said.

 

The young lady muttered something about him being so slow and drove off. Gus stood and watched as leaves rustled in the car’s wake. It wasn’t the first time that happened either.

 

When Gus was in Korea, the locals there had so much more respect for their elders. They were treated like great men whom children adored for the stories and adults revered for their wisdom. Certainly that was not the case here.

 

As Gus turned to go back inside, he noticed Mrs. Patterson walking up to him. She was young, early-seventies maybe, petite with gray hair and always wore a dress. “Those young boys almost crashed into you again!” she said.

 

Gus shrugged, but said nothing.

 

“Why do you let them do that?” Mrs. Patterson continued. “All their mothers shop here. You should tell Dennis to talk to them.”

 

“It wouldn’t help. Kids don’t listen to their mothers these days.”

 

“Still. I can’t believe you put up with it,”

 

“Yep, I have a dangerous job…” Gus replied with a smile. “I’m a regular double-o-seven.”

 

“Oh, Gus,” Mrs. Patterson laughed as she touched his arm. “You’re so delightful…”

 

Gus eyed the reflection of Mrs. Patterson and himself in the window as they walked towards the door. He was still tall for his age, five-ten, and slender with thinning gray hair, thick eyebrows and hazel eyes hiding behind wire-rimmed glasses.

 

“I’m buying fixin’s for stew,” Mrs. Patterson asked. “You like stew?”

 

“I like stew,” Gus replied.

 

“Well you should come by. I haven’t made it from scratch since my husband died.” 

 

The idea of hot stew as a last meal popped into Gus’s head, but no.  “I appreciate your offer, but I can’t tonight,” he responded.

 

“Oh Gus, it wouldn’t kill you to come over at least for a little while.”

 

Gus glanced at Mrs. Patterson and looked her up and down. She was so young and full of energy. Would it kill him? Hmm, it just might. But that wasn’t why he declined. As the automatic sliding doors squealed open to allow them enter, Mrs. Patterson took his silence as a further decline.

 

“Well, okay, perhaps next week then? I’ll bring leftovers tomorrow and you can see what you missed,” She said as she grabbed a cart and walked away.

 

Tomorrow. I won’t be here,” Gus muttered to himself as she disappeared around the pumpkin display. Mrs. Patterson was always inviting him over or bringing him soups, cakes and casseroles. Her treats were the best part of Gus’s existence. Once a week or so, he would stop by just to taste one of those gourmet coffee cakes still warm from the oven. He never stayed long, but for a short while it was heaven.

 

Gus sighed heavily. But no, not today. Besides, Heaven was the last place he’d be going. And even if by some divine pardon he did get there, how could he face them? What would he say? So even on this, his last day, he was determined to serve out his time as promised.

 

“Hey Gus! We’re not paying you to stand there!” Dennis yelled.

 

Gus smiled with embarrassment and scurried back to lane three and started bagging groceries for a young lady with her two children.

 

“You need to double-bag it!” she barked. “Otherwise, they break open. Why can’t you make the bags stronger?”

 

“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure they’re thicker next time I make a batch,” Gus replied.

 

Gus recognized the lady from the apartment complex. Laura Inglewood, a single mom. She shopped here every week and they passed each other occasionally on the sidewalk, but she never noticed him. The kids knew him though. Austin and Emma. Laura worked nights and many days the kids played outside while she slept. Once as Gus was walking by, he grabbed Emma chasing a ball into the street almost getting hit by a car. He never said anything. Laura had it hard enough as it was. Instead, Gus always made sure he was there to watch when they played.

 

“Don’t pack it so full!” she scolded. “What am I, Superman? How am I supposed to carry them when they’re so heavy?” Gus apologized and noticed Dennis glaring over. Gus took some items out and started a new bag… Oops, wait, gotta double-bag it.

 

He glanced back at Dennis who was training a new cashier supervisor – young kid, clean cut, well dressed but with an ear ring in each ear. He was fresh out of college, which was how Dennis hired them. Most of the time they’d just boss everyone around like a prison guard. And when they realized the job wasn’t that easy, they’d move on. Those who stayed eventually mellowed, like Dennis.

 

“Yeah, he’s slow and clumsy and I should really let him go, but I can’t,” he heard Dennis say.

 

“I get it,” The new kid said. “But I learned in college you can’t be sentimental. You have to put business first.”

 

 

“Really? I always thought you put people first?” Dennis replied.

 

“That’s old school. Mom and Pop shops are drying up. If you want to survive against the big chains, you have to change the way you think. Most places have people bag their own groceries now. It’s faster for them and cuts costs for us.”

 

“I don’t know.” Dennis replied. “He’s been here before I started forty years ago. He’s as much a fixture as the sign out front. Besides, the kids really like him. I think it’s the personal touches that’ll help us survive the chains.”

 

Gus recognized the new kid. Trent Larson. It was about ten years ago when Trent was just another kid on a skateboard. Now he was all grown up but hadn’t matured at all, just like when Dennis first started. Gus chuckled even though he felt sorry for Trent. He still hadn’t learned that the only real teacher is time.

 

Laura was a walker, so Gus didn’t need to carry out for her. The skateboard kids would be disappointed, he thought. Austin and Emma each took a bag and grinned while Gus pressed his finger to his lips while Laura grabbed the other bags. Gus thanked her for shopping at Mason’s, but she said nothing and quickly hurried out the door.

 

Gus punched out at six, put on his coat and started the walk home. Like usual, Gus stopped off at the library. Normally his routine would be to drop off a book and pick up a new one, but this time he just dropped them off. Over the years he had read fiction, philosophy, psychology, politics, history, biography, self-help books, even tried a couple of encyclopedias. Now he was onto children’s books.

 

Gus deposited “Goodnight Moon” and several others and continued on to his one-bedroom apartment.  Leaves rustled past his legs as the wind danced them down the sidewalk. One flew up and caught his coat sleeve. The leaf’s spine had curled up as it dried, much in the same way of his own spine. He couldn’t stand up straight any more without his lower back complaining. He brushed off the leaf as the wind joined it with the others. He closed his eyes. He liked the sound of the leaves rustling. It was restless and peaceful at the same time.

 

He reached his building and took the elevator up to the third floor. Halfway down the hall, he stopped when he saw them waiting by his door.

 

The younger man he already knew. Cooper. Tall, slim, and always wore the same crisp black suit. He was clean cut with a plain face and average features. The other man was older, forties, and looked weary. He had thick curly brown hair, baggy brown corduroy pants and a blue dress shirt, holding a single suitcase.

 

Gus stood for a moment. He was nervous and relieved. His time was over now, but what was in store for him next he didn’t know. He sighed and walked towards them.

 

“Hi Gus,” Cooper said. “Nice to see you again.”

 

“It’s been a long time, Cooper. You haven’t changed a bit and I mean not one bit.” Gus replied, then eyed the other man. “Is he the replacement?”

 

“Yes,” Cooper replied. “This is Stuart.”

 

“Hi,” Stuart said weakly. Gus eyed him over. He was introverted, shy and nervous.

 

“Come on in,” Gus said as he unlocked the door and ushered them in.

 

The apartment was simple but clean. The furniture was sparse and old – sagging couch, coffee table, side table, small shelf with a TV, an old bookcase stuffed with books, a small roll top desk with an old clock on top, a dining table with two chairs. There were some modern appliances like a microwave and a small flat screen TV but that was it. The walls were barren of any pictures or art.

 

“I’ll make some tea,” Gus offered as he hung up his jacket and walked into his small alcove kitchen.

 

“I can’t stay,” Cooper replied as he casually looked around. “You’ve kept the place nice I see,” he added.

 

“Well, it’s not the Bellagio, but I do all right.” Gus replied.

 

“You do more than all right” Cooper replied. “You’re the best tenant I’ve had, despite the visits to Mrs. Patterson and befriending the neighbourhood kids.”

 

Gus looked at him. “You know about that?”

 

“Please…” Cooper replied. “but, it doesn’t matter. You’ve not failed your task in fifty years and that’s what matters.”

 

Cooper motioned for Stuart to take a seat at the table. “I have to go,” he said. “I have other matters to attend to. Show him the ropes and I’ll be back in the morning.”

 

“Whatever you say, boss,” Gus said with a smile.

 

Cooper nodded and left.

 

Gus finished heating the water and brought two cups of tea to the table, then made a second trip for milk and sugar. Stuart proceeded to add several spoonfuls of sugar and milk to his tea while Gus drank it straight up.

 

“So what’s your sin?” Gus asked.

 

Stuart glanced up as he stirred. “Armed Robbery,” he sighed as he stirred his tea. “I was young and strung out on cocaine. I didn’t even think twice when I shot him. And for what, a hundred bucks? He was an immigrant and a father of six trying to start a new life.”

 

“Mmm,” Gus said and he sipped.

 

“What about you?” Stuart asked.

 

“Me?” Gus said. “I never fit in after Korea. Ending up drinking… a lot. I was driving smashed one evening, hit a car and killed the whole family- husband, wife, two kids…”

 

There was a long silence as Gus stared into his tea as if searching for something.

 

“And yet you lived?” Stuart asked.

 

“Yep, year in the hospital, two years in therapy just to earn a lifetime in prison. I’d still be there now if not for Cooper.”

 

“Me too. I asked him how the hell he got me out, but he wouldn’t say.”

 

“I think of it as a work release program.”

 

Stuart didn’t smile. He was clearly not in the mood for Gus’s jokes. He just fidgeted as he drank his tea as if he couldn’t get comfortable. He was probably anxious and a bit scared, just like Gus on his first night.

 

“So what do I have to do?”

 

“It’s not time yet.”

 

“What time does it have to be?”

 

“You choose your own, mine is 8:46 pm. That’s the time they died. You hungry?”

 

Gus pulled two chicken pot pies from the freezer and heated them in the oven while Stuart wandered over and browsed the books. He took a couple out, paged through them and put them back.

 

“You read all these?”

 

“Yep, many more than once.”

 

Stuart wandered to the desk and studied the clock on top. It was tarnished and looked heavy with three faces on it. The large one in the middle was a standard clock with 12 numbers, an hour and a minute hand. A smaller one on the left had a sun in the centre with twelve strange symbols surrounding it with a single hand pointing at 6. The one on the right was the same except it had a crescent moon in the centre and the hand pointing almost at 12.

 

“You have family?” Stuart asked.

 

“Somewhere I guess. You?”

 

“Mom and Dad died. I have a sister in New York. She stopped visiting when my appeals ran out. I’ve thought about reaching out to her, but Cooper says no.”

 

“Yeah. In some ways family endures more pain than you do. All they could do is stand by and watch helpless. Probably best to let them move on.”

 

They spoke little during dinner. Gus told him about the jobs in the area, how to earn enough to make a living and still keep things simple. At 8:45 an alarm clock went off on the side table next to the couch. Gus went over and shut it off.

 

“It’s time,” he said.

 

“What do I have to do?”

 

“I’ll show you,” Gus walked to the roll top desk and opened it. Inside was a small stack of bills with an opener and a cup with pens. The cubbies on the top were all empty. Gus opened a single drawer in the middle of the cubbies and pulled out an old skeleton key. He inserted it into a hole in the side of the clock and turned it as he listened to the spring deep inside increase in tension. After a dozen cranks, he removed the key, placed it back in the drawer, closed up the desk and sat back down.

 

“Is… that it?” Stuart asked.

 

“Yep,” Gus said. “Remember to do it every day at the same time.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, if you don’t, it stops.”

 

“And what happens if it stops?”

 

Gus thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Cooper’s not very forthcoming. He just said don’t let it stop.”

 

Stuart got up and paced the floor. “I don’t understand. How do I redeem myself then?”

 

“What?”

 

“Cooper said he was offering me the chance to redeem myself. How does winding a clock do that?” Stuart asked.

 

“What did you think you’d be doing?”

 

“I don’t know. Working in an orphanage? Feeding the homeless? Preaching the dangers of drugs? You know, making a difference.”

 

“Well, maybe every time you wind the clock, an angel gets its wings.”

 

“Enough with the jokes! Can’t you be serious?”

 

“Fine,” Gus said as he sighed. “Think of it like this. What were you doing in prison?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You had a life sentence. Nothing to do but die, right?”

 

“Yeah. So?”

 

“Now you’re out. Cooper selected you. Not a lot of people get a chance like this. Does it really matter what you have to do?”

 

Stuart looked around the small apartment. “So… now what?”

 

“Sometimes I watch television. Most of the time I read.”

 

“Then what happens?”

 

“Nothing. You wind the clock every day until Cooper comes for you.”

 

“What happens if you miss a day?”

 

“I’ve never missed,” Gus said.

 

Stuart shrugged. “Not much different from prison, is it?”

 

“Perhaps it’s not supposed to be.”

 

“So what’s next for you?”

 

Gus walked over to the bookcase and put the books Stuart had touched back in their rightful places. He had pondered that question a lot. What would be waiting for him when Cooper came in the morning? Was it Heaven? And if it was, would they be there waiting for him? Would they forgive him? “Good question,” he finally said. “I’m sure Cooper will do what’s right.”

 

“Who is Cooper anyway?”

 

“Good question. How old do you think he is?”

 

“I don’t know… thirty?”

 

“Yeah, what would you say if I told you Cooper was the one who found me over 50 years ago? Same face, same hair, even the same black suit. As I’ve grown into an old man, he hasn’t aged a day.”

 

“How can that be?”

 

“Don’t know. And I wasn’t the first.”

 

“That would make him…”

 

“Perhaps as old as that clock,” Gus replied.

 

“So is he an angel? God? The devil?”

 

Gus shrugged. “Or perhaps he just has a really good plastic surgeon.”

 

“So, every day you wind that clock and you don’t know why?”

 

“I do know why.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because Cooper asked me too”

 

“But-.”

 

“Enough talk. I’m tired. You take the bedroom.”

 

Gus lay down on the couch. He curled into a ball and covered himself with a plain brown blanket and closed his eyes. “Go on,” he said. Stuart watched him for a while, then sighed, got up, grabbed his suitcase and went into the bedroom closing the door.

 

***

 

There was a knock on the front door.

 

Gus woke up. Outside the sun was cresting the hill, spilling its light over the landscape. The wind was still restless, causing a rustle of dead leaves that sounded just like the rain that revives the earth in spring. 

 

It was morning. Gus got up and realized he was still wearing his clothes. He walked over to the door and peered through the peephole. It was Cooper. He opened it and Cooper came in.

 

“Did you fill him in?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is he going to work out?”

 

“Well, he’s not me, but he’ll do.”

              

Cooper smiled. “Good, you want to shower or anything before we go?”

 

Gus glanced around the apartment, the books, the desk, the clock. “No, I’m good.”

 

“Don’t you want to at least say goodbye?”

 

“No.” Gus paused. “Just… tell him to watch out for the kids on skateboards. Oh, and tell him that Mrs. Robinson makes the best stew.”

 

Gus grabbed his coat and paused. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“If you must,” Cooper replied.

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what?”

 

Gus motioned around the apartment and then at the clock. “I never once questioned you, but now I have to ask. What’s so special about the clock? Is it magic? Does it keep the world spinning or something like that?”

 

“No. It’s just a clock.”

 

“Then… why?”

 

“Well, had you still been in prison, who would have taught Dennis how to run a business, or those elementary kids how to appreciate their elders, or Trent about tolerance? Who would have helped Mrs. Patterson over the grief of her husband? And who would have saved Emma from that car? Redemption is not about big and miraculous things, it’s about doing little things every day.”

 

“It wasn’t about the clock?”

 

“Yes, it was about the clock. Had you not been here to wind it, you would have not done all those things. You spent your life helping others in your own way. As far as we’re concerned, your debt is paid.”

 

Gus frowned. All this time he was focused on the clock when that had nothing to do with it.

 

“It’s not what you expected, is it?”

 

A smile slowly crept across Gus’s face. “No. It’s not. But then again, life never is.”

 

Gus plopped the keys on the table and followed Cooper out the door. SLQ

 

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Bio: Russell Heidorn lives outside Minneapolis and scatters his time between working and raising a family while pursuing his dream of writing music and fiction. His songs have received local airplay as well as won an award from the Music City Song Festival and his writing has been published in local periodicals. He is currently working on a novel about a suburban man who scatters his time between work and family while pursuing his dream. However, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

Watching

A short story by Amanda Zaldua

I watch you, my love, drag your weary body to sitting and then sitting still for a moment on the edge of the bed, contemplating what? I don’t know. You slowly rise and spend time carefully making the bed, our bed, our love nest we used to call it, remember? We used to laugh at that. Then you go downstairs achingly slowly, supporting yourself with the bannister. You let yourself out, out into the cold morning bare foot, your cotton nightie barely covering your legs, your once beautiful legs. They used to turn heads, those legs. You pretended not to notice but I knew. You make your way down the street. Continue reading

Acting Apart

Short story by

PAUL BROWNSEY

 

            It had all been nonsense.  “Forever shall I be faithful to the duty of a married woman,” she had cried, in the peculiar language of poetic drama, not the language of life.  Her eyes had shone, her bosom had been elevated as though to welcome the sword of martyrdom.  “My husband’s glory was of the battlefield; mine shall be the glory of a virtuous wife.”

There had been much more of the same. 

Thus, she had dismissed Yevgeny Onegin.

It had been nonsense because in Prince Gremin, Tatyana had married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Forever would be a brief interlude; then she would be free to marry again.  She must have known this even while she quivered in her ecstasy of renunciation and the polonaise snapped its grand heartless rhythms in the adjoining ballroom.

Striding –  did he sometimes break into a run?    along Nevsky Prospekt at a pace that caused stares, Onegin asked himself where it had come from, this sickness that caused women – and men, too –  to step aside from the simple facts of their lives and force themselves into scenes that might have come from novels or Italian operas.  Before the drama of Tatyana’s grand renunciation of him there had been, years before, when he was a visitor at her father’s house, the drama of her grand declaration of eternal love for him, made in a letter carefully composed to exhibit spontaneous unrestraint.  The same sickness had infected poor Lensky, whose response to Onegin’s harmless and entirely aimless flirting with his sweetheart, little Olga, had been to fling himself into the role of outraged lover from whom honour demanded the drama of a duel.  And he had died in consequence, for he had obliged Onegin to shoot at him, and a sensible man does not treat the conventions of society with contempt, foolish though the conventions may be to the eye of reason.

The same eye of reason disclosed to Onegin that he, too, had been prey to the self-dramatising sickness.  His response to Tatyana’s grand renunciation had been to embrace the Young Werther role, writhing in despair at his beloved’s marriage to another.  (Youngish Werther, anyway!)  Mightn’t he actually have blown his brains out if his friend Hermann hadn’t snatched the pistol from him?  And there, in Kazansky Cathedral, mocking him with its colonnade shaped like a woman’s embracing arms, he’d stood in vain through hours of mumbo-jumbo in hope of a divine presence because he’d heard she attended there.  He’d even flung himself to the floor in a full prostration –  he, an unbeliever!  Yet for all the intensity with which he’d felt his despair, it had still been this mad play-acting.  He had hidden from himself the same knowledge that Tatyana had hidden from herself in order that it shouldn’t impede her performance of the faithful wife forever renouncing her true love: the fact that her married state was bound to be brief.

That knowledge had been released into consciousness only now, unlocked by solemn newspaper columns reporting the death of Prince Gremin.  As he swerved around the squad of prostitutes sweeping the cobbles as punishment for plying their trade the night before, he did not neglect to ask himself whether this descent on the general’s house wasn’t a further exercise in drama, the scene in which, just when the heroine’s abandonment is at its most intense, the rejected lover she really loves, sweeps in to sweep her off.

That was not the way to look at it.  On the contrary, it would pre-empt drama.  It would be a simple acknowledgement by two rational creatures of facts they both knew full well and would thus eliminate at a stroke the play of hints and manoeuvres, contrived meetings that looked accidental, letters left on tables as in that English novel about old lovers that the French had translated.  Such directness might shock the conventions, but a sensible man knew when not to take the conventions seriously. 

Conventions created drama.

But already she was gone.  A servant in dirty ill-assorted clothes attempted the hauteur he might have seen his former master display in sending a pedlar packing to inform Onegin that immediately after the funeral of “his Great and Very Noble Prince Highness” and without waiting for any of the memorial services, “her Great and Very Noble Princess Highness” had departed for an estate in the Ukraine. 

“The name of the estate is…?”  Would a journey of a thousand versts and an unheralded invasion of Tatyana’s distant seclusion cross the border from directness into drama?

The servant’s face opened in what seemed an attempt at a smile of warmth and recognition.  “God be with you, Pavel Davidovitch,” he said.  In a rush a newcomer had ascended the steps behind Onegin and was entering the house like one who had the freedom of it.

“The God of my fathers and yours, Fedya,” the man called gaily in reply, then halted to compose himself as though only now realising that he had overtaken a gentleman.  He bowed to Onegin and disappeared indoors.  Certain features of the man’s image lingered while Onegin retraced his steps to his lodging and his thoughts discovered the reason why Tatyana had fled to the Ukraine.  She pretended a grief-stricken retreat from society, fearing that if she remained in St Petersburg the force of her love for Onegin, which she had not omitted to confess to him in the course of her grand renunciation so as to make it perfect, would, now that she was free to marry him, drive her to some impetuous action which would mire her in scandal.   A woman could not flout convention as a man could.  The man had a swarthy face, a hooked nose. 

The man who had the freedom of Tatyana’s house, whom the servant had greeted while leaving Onegin unanswered, was a Jew.

Yes, he looked like a gentleman, and to the eye of reason, rather than to the eyes of good upstanding Russians, most of whom were blockheads, was it obvious that a Jew could not be a gentleman?  But Our Father the Tsar had decreed that the Jews should remain in their Pale in the territories to the south and west, forbidden to contaminate the pure heartland of Holy Mother Russia, where the knowledge still lay close to the soul that the incursion of the admirable and odious Napoleon must have been due to sins committed by the Russian people.  And could the Tsar’s decree be other than a good and wise decree?    for according to the principle of autocracy so happily ruling in Russia, the only measure of what was good and wise was what the Tsar decreed.  Still, though the Tsar ruled by the grace of God, he did not quite possess God’s omnipotence.  Like lice in barracks, Jews could be found in St Petersburg and Moscow if you looked for them, and many impecunious persons, such as Onegin’s friend Hermann, looked for them.

That thought reared up like one of the bronze horses erected a few years later on the Anichkov Bridge.

If a Jew could come and go as he pleased in the house of Prince Gremin, then Gremin, like poor Hermann, must have been in hock to the moneylenders.  And in that case –  and the fact that the door had been opened by a scarecrow of a servant made it the more likely    then love (Onegin’s own love for Tatyana, her love for him) had a powerful second.  If anything remained of Tatyana’s old self-dramatising devotion to her prince, perhaps even causing her to toy with the idea of remaining a widow to his memory forever (even a virgin forever?    there had been no child of the marriage), prudence would soon knock it on the head.  Her husband’s money gone to the Jews and thus not available to keep her in the style to which, from an unpretentious country home, she had become accustomed – well, this was not calculated to inhibit her love for a gentleman of large and unburdened estates. 

And the same prudence made him patient.  The envisioned pursuit of Tatyana to the Ukraine would indeed be drama, not befitting people whose lives were governed by reason.  She would be back.  He could wait for the meeting.  And there should be no further attempt to confront her in her home, where, he felt obscurely, influences lurked that might work against the progress of reason on earth that the German philosopher promised. 

It was at the Prussian ambassador’s, many months later, that he learned that she was back in St Petersburg; at the house of a senior official in the army ministry who had recently been ennobled, that she declined many invitations on account of headaches; from a doctor with whom he played kaisa billiards, that he had recommended air for the headaches; from a beggar, that, in her carriage, she had passed the very spot where, an hour before, Onegin had been stationed in case an airing took her that way.  Each piece of news brought a fear that her need of money, far from aiding his cause, might damage it, for it would be just like her to say that she wouldn’t marry him because she couldn’t be sure that love alone, in dramatic purity, was her motive.  At a ball, as a polonaise played, which could be a good omen or a bad, their eyes locked from afar; he could not find her later but his reason forbade him to yield to the belief that the crowd was deliberately keeping them apart. 

Could one say that destiny was slowly engineering a meeting between them, their wills playing no part in the process?  But of course, one did not believe in destiny; to believe in it was to accept that one’s life was a play written by another. 

If destiny did bring about their meeting, it deputed the details to old Countess X.  She was said to possess the secret of winning at gambling and Onegin’s friend Hermann had some crackpot scheme to clear his debts by beguiling the old lady into revealing her secret, a scheme he pursued by wooing some girl who was her ward.  Accompanying Hermann to the Countess’s apartment, Onegin learned that Tatyana was expected at a forthcoming music party at which guests were to be ravished by the piano-playing of the celebrated Irishman, John Field, revisiting the city of his first triumphs.  Onegin professed so intense a love of nocturnes so insistently that if Countess X did not extend an invitation to him, it must count as a snub of the first order; and she managed both snub and invitation together, saying, “You make it abundantly clear, sir, that my party would be incomplete if you did not have the kindness to attend.”

On the night of the nocturnes ladies and gentlemen nodded to them as though their rhythm were that of a trepak, and were so appreciative that for the most part their conversation did not drown the music.  Tatyana arrived when people were already seating themselves for the music and greeted Onegin with a distant but calm bow, then rather drew attention to herself by listening to the music in a distant but calm silence.  At the interval, when some crowded around the Irishman, who was old and ill and plainly drunk, with praise, and others, with even more enthusiasm, exited in the direction of the refreshments, Tatyana did neither, risking comment as she hastened to the library.  Here Onegin discovered her at another, smaller piano, picking out notes, for all the world as though she had not stationed herself there for their long-fated encounter.

He fired his bullet immediately, like a rational person.  “You love me and I love you.”

She absorbed the shot without ceasing to trace the notes of Field’s Nocturne in C Major.

“Tatyana, those are the only facts.  The rest is play-acting.  Your grand renunciation was all nonsense, and you know it.  Will you lie about your heart or about the fidelity of mine to you?” 

“That is the melody, is it not?  Yes, I acknowledge the fidelity of your passion for me and I shall not lie about my heart.”  The words seemed not attended to, so intent was she on repeating some notes.

“Tatyana!  Oh, my dearest, my angel!”  But it was awkward to embrace her as she sat at the keyboard, and so insecure was his balance as he stooped to do so that, though he registered the heat of her flesh through silk, her vigorous push overbalanced him to the floor.

 “I will not lie about my heart.  It is pledged to another.  I shall marry Pavel Davidovitch Edlin.”

“And who the devil is that?”  But that was how outraged fathers in novels addressed daughters who had professed a liking for someone unsuitable.  For that matter, her It is pledged to another was literature-speak, too.  Could people not help this, performing like automatons whose voices and phrases and tones and poses came from the books they’d read, the conversations they’d heard, the scenes they’d witnessed?  It was as though people weren’t real, uniquely expressing their own unique feelings and thoughts, but were mere channels for something else that could not be resisted.

He struggled to his feet and struggled to find a different way of putting his question until recognition flooded in and the latter was unnecessary.

            “The Jew!”

            “A good man!”  Her eyes blazed into his, then elevated themselves to the icon shelf that conventional respectability exacted even from a notorious free-thinker like Countess X.

 “How can you, a Russian woman, marry a Jew?”  And when he had said that, and in the silence that threatened to continue forever, he knew he had spoken words that were written by another and that the drama in which they figured was not his own, yet he also knew he could not have helped himself. 

He said, “I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 “I forgive you.  One has to say that, it is what we are taught, what well-bred people say.”  Something in her broke open and fury cried, “But I do not forgive you!”  Then the fury in her went out, and it was as though positions were reversed and she were begging his forgiveness. “He came to see my husband on behalf of a mother, a widow, whose son had been taken by the army for twenty-five years, as they do with the Jews, the young men.  He pleaded with my husband to spare her son.  I knew that saving this boy would be good.”  Her pleading manner vanished.  “I discovered I wanted this more intensely than I had ever wanted anything.”  Pause.  “I made sure that certain papers disappeared.  The boy returned to his mother.  I seemed to have discerned a purpose for my life.  Since then I have interested myself in the fate of our Jews.”

 “And if you were troubled by the new disease you would marry a man with the cholera.”  But he said it gently, almost tenderly, remembering his efforts to ease the lot of his serfs in the face of his neighbours’ hostility, and wondering whether this piece of devotion on his part to the good of others could furnish an argument about how well he and Tatyana were suited.

“I am engaged with others in establishing a Committee for the Friendship of Christians and Jews.  We shall endeavour to bring to the knowledge of the Tsar how loyal our Jews wish to be and how merciless and brutal are those who act in his name.  Through my love for my husband all my powers shall be at the service of good.  My happiness shall lie in the happiness of a suffering people from whom the lash and the shackles are withdrawn!”

“No-one,” he shouted, frantic at the ineffable stupidity of her project, “will pay the slightest attention to your committee of Russians and Jews.” 

“Not Russians and Jews.  Christians and Jews.”  Her bosom lifted in the old way and her eyes shone in the old way.

But he had a bullet left to pierce this performance, get to her soul. 

 “Would I be right to infer that before your husband died you nourished a guilty passion for his successor?  I will not say that you deceived him as the world understands that phrase, but it appears you went behind his back to effect what your new husband wanted.”

“Your reproach is not that I nourished a guilty passion while my husband was alive, but that I did not nourish a guilty passion for you.”

“But you loved me, you did.  You told me so on the night -”

 “- on the night of my grand renunciation, as you call it.  But that, you have perceived, was all nonsense, play-acting.  All nonsense, and that must damn whatever confession of love for you it may have included.”

She had risen from the piano, and the manner in which she swept from the room showed how well she had learnt the deportment befitting the exalted role in society brought to her by Prince Gremin.  “Tanya, don’t get all princessy,” he cried after her, but the music was beginning again and she did not return.

The tune was a Russian song, In the Garden.  In the garden at her father’s house he told Tatyana to forget the love she had professed in her letter.  Why was Field playing a Russian song?     Wasn’t he here to play his own compositions?  That was a conundrum to challenge a philosopher.  “The tune is mere coincidence, for there is no destiny to mock us.”  After Field, composer of a piano fantasia on In the Garden, was gone, they found Onegin in the library, saying that aloud to no-one, again and again. SLQ

 

 PaulBrownsey-photo

Paul Brownsey has published around 80 short stories in Europe and North America.  His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA.