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Authors: Adrienne Celt

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BOOK: Invitation to a Bonfire
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Lev

7 July 1931

Airmail via Berlin

Renka, not sure you got my last letter (was notified it was forwarded home from your hotel?), but if you receive this (God, I hope you receive this), can you take care of a few things for me while I'm still in Berlin? Just want to make sure I'm ready to look my best in classes this year; now that my course load has been reduced “as befits my national reputation,” I'll need to make an impression.

Black suit, pressed (not by the tailor on the corner who put a burn on the lapel of my Parisian grey wool; you know I despise him).

A few new shirts from New York; whatever you think. You know my size. Though I may have dropped a few pounds in the past wretched weeks, I plan on fattening back up as quick as can be.

Attendant to this: clotted cream, to go on all the summer fruit. A variety of wine, red and white—it would be particularly lovely if you could get L
é
on to dig up another bottle or two of that 1901 Ch
â
teau Mouton Rothschild. (I think he's been hoarding them for himself, but you know that man; he always has a price.) Steak, best cut. Slender
asparagus. Now I'm just making myself hungry, so suffice it to say I trust you to do the shopping.

I'll need a new pair of eyeglasses, so please make an appointment with the optician. The old ones were crushed in an unfortunate brawl, the details of which I'll fill in for you in person, as it would be unwise to commit them to paper.

If there's a metalsmith you trust, I'd like to get my new pistol cleaned, too, at the earliest convenience.

That's all for now.
À toi ma vie, à toi mon sang
, my love. When we meet again it will be Heaven, or something like that, so I hope.

 

Zoya

46.

Lev bought me cigarettes, mostly because he wanted to smoke in my house, and taught me how to hold them. To take one and tap it on the table, packing the sweet tobacco in, and then light the faraway end with the close side perched between your lips. Mostly I made him light them for me, not because I couldn't but because I liked to watch him puff and puff, and then to put in my mouth what had been in his. I watched him like a child watches an older child, slyly, and from the corner of my eye. Always hoping for him to approve of me in some way, since he was my life's first coup, the first thing truly wanted and procured.

On those languid afternoons at the end of the spring semester, when Vera had been told he was running an extra seminar, Lev would sometimes let slip his ideas for new books, stories set in the cold black of space, which he said was not really cold at all but just so low in pressure as to boil liquid into a gas. I imagined this lack of pressure as an embrace, no temperature at all but still so intense as to turn your very blood to steam. Only if you had a cut, Lev corrected. The blood in your body is a closed system. The liquid on your eyeballs, though, would evaporate right away.

We talked about Vera too, which always made me very tense. By the end of May Lev had finalized his plans for the rescue of his manuscript, which he said was doubtless just where he'd left it, and which would change the course of his career.

“I gave her a copy, you know, a long time ago. She didn't like it.”

“I'm sure it's wonderful.” I pet his cheek and he batted my hand away with a vexed flinch. It wasn't always easy to tell what he'd find maudlin.

“You'll like it,” he went on. “That's the difference between the two of you. You know how to love what I love.” He lit another cigarette for me and I took it.

He would be leaving the third week of June, not long now. Gone for who knows how much time. “It's impossible to plan, darling. I'm toppling governments here. Well. Circumventing, anyway.” He told me that, at any rate, I needed as much time as I could get. He had casually dropped my name to Vera as a possible companion, someone to help her pass the time while he was away. She'd spat on the street and kept walking, without seeming to hear, though he'd referred to me as a person he'd met only once or twice on campus. And here I was supposed to convince her to go on a trip with me, somewhere discreet, where I could do away with her in total privacy. “She's just angry that I'm going after the book,” he said. “She doesn't like to have her plans tampered with.” And in her plan, the book was long dead.

“What was it,” I ventured carefully, “that she didn't like about it?”

“You think I know?” He blew a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. “She burned the thing without a warning, and just insisted she was trying to help me. Didn't feel the need to be specific. Would've driven me mad if”—here, a wry, sexual twinkle—“well, you know we have a passionate marriage.”

“Yes,” I agreed. Still, the question bothered me. Vera seemed always to be with us, a shadow on the wall, a hum in my ear. I imagined her sitting on her front porch directing flies orchestrally, or seeing a stray dog pick through her trash and nudging it out into traffic with pure mental noise. What had she seen in that book? Would I, in spite of Lev's insistence to the contrary, see it too, once he brought the thing home? He said she and I were the same person, in a certain sense, and though I knew this was mostly a lie he told himself to feel better about sleeping with me, it was also starting to feel true. In
Rothschild
, the infected women fell in love with the passengers wound round their legs. They let the creatures' vines crawl up the back of their knees and inculcate themselves into
their blood vessels, thickening between their ribs and eating away at their bones like ivy taken root on brick. Vera had become my passenger—or had I become hers?—and I sometimes felt her eyes opening up behind my own, just slightly, blinking as if tired. I wanted to prod her awake—less, now, for safekeeping, and more to hear what she might say about the book and see whether it pinged anything within me. Though this seemed a terrible thing to admit. After all, the reason Lev loved me was my ability to be completely on his side.

That night we smoked in bed until the sun went down and the sheets reeked. When Lev left I walked across the room naked, with a very formal bearing, and looked at myself in the mirror, smudging my face to the left and the right, lifting the skin on my forehead to change the angle of my eyes. Did I look like Vera, in any part? I didn't see it, but maybe there was something in the underlayer. Maybe there was something oncoming, already too far along to stop. I cooked dinner naked, too, positioning myself as far away as I could from the pan where my chicken leg was frying, holding the tongs with only the tips of my fingers and extending my arm till it clicked in the socket. After a minute I stepped closer—losing my nerve and shrieking when the fat popped, but then taking another step, and another. The hot oil glistened in the pan and sizzled onto my skin in a light mist; it hurt, but there was a certain interest for me in how much of it I could stand. After a while the red spots on my stomach and thighs began to look beautiful in their way. Pointillism. Abstract expressionism. Something I had done to myself on purpose.

47.

Despite how much I thought about her, I didn't speak to Vera until a week after Lev left for Europe. I saw him the morning of his departure—he'd promised me a visit since he'd be gone for weeks at minimum. Maybe months. He came over while on the pretence of a walk, stretching his legs before the long flight and jittering out a few of his nerves with a brisk lap round the neighborhood. It wasn't entirely a ruse. After
knocking, twice, he waited for me on the porch instead of slipping inside with the key I always left for him under a flowerpot, and when I emerged he grabbed my hand and pulled me into his pace. A stiff-legged, energetic shuffle.

“Here.” He thrust a manila envelope into my hand, a medium-sized mailer sealed up and folded over twice.

“What's this?”

“When she takes her tea,” he said, going on as if he hadn't heard me, “she's very particular about getting the sugar loose from a bowl, and never in lumps or cubes. I couldn't get anything in the form of a powder because it would've looked too odd, but you can crack these open, I think, and just mix it in.” A green look crept in around the edges of his face. “God, just make it seem like you don't ever take sugar in your tea, or coffee. Just to be safe, so you don't eat any by accident.”

“I don't take sugar.”

“Well,” he said. “All the better.”

A child laughed on a nearby lawn, jumping through a sprinkler in an orange and yellow swimsuit. School was out. I hefted the envelope in my hand, trying to count the pills through the paper. Six, seven, eight—at least nine, and I had no idea what they were, though I supposed it didn't really matter.

“I thought the idea was for me to convince her to do it herself?”

Lev twitched his shoulder, almost imperceptibly.

“I thought about it. That would never work. Can you imagine her swallowing a handful of pills, downing a glass of something stiff? How could she ever get so hopeless, so fast?” His face was pained, almost as if his question was sincere, his wife suicidal. As if I had the answers he needed to pull her back from the brink. “It'll still look that way on the blood work. And no one will ask too many questions. I kissed that girl Daphne behind the library before she left for the summer. There will be rumors.”

The world, a pinpoint. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, don't be difficult. You know we're in this together. It's all for us.”

We kept on with our frenetic stroll, and Lev began to calm down, take deeper breaths; I stuffed the envelope out of sight in my pocket and he cheered further. Now he held my hand lightly, rubbing my forefinger with his thumb. “I've thought about it,” he said again. “I thought about it a lot. An awful lot.” That was probably true. He thought a great deal about everything, from the rotation of planets around different types of sun to the question of whether all self-aware creatures (hypothetical ones; he had no great affection for cats and dogs and wouldn't have given them that much credit) counted as human and deserved the same societal place. (Mostly this was an issue of robots.) His wife, well. Certainly she weighed on his mind. I had seen it: how in the middle of a sentence his jaw might drop as she swept in and settled down. Her fingers tightening invisibly on his wrist. But I couldn't help feeling that the weight of this particular situation had just been transferred onto me. A yellow envelope, creasing in my pocket. Lev was hours from boarding an airplane that would take him far away.

We made our way onto campus, and though I assumed we'd head to his office, Lev pointed me towards the greenhouse instead.

“People will be able to see.”

“There's no one here,” he pointed out. “It's summer. And anyway, this is where we first met.”

Reluctantly, I let myself be drawn inside. It was Saturday, so John was unlikely to come by, and the only real danger was from townspeople using the campus as a shortcut now that the students were gone for the year. It was, I told myself, romantic that he remembered. Lev brought me to a table at the back of the greenhouse, one covered in orchids. The plants steamed and fogged. He embraced me from behind and began to kiss my neck, placing one hand on my shoulder and snaking the other around to the front of my body. I sighed into his touch, trying not to look out the window. In a couple of hours he would be gone.

“Vera,” he whispered into my ear, pressing himself against me and reaching around to undo my trousers. “Remember, Vera.” I couldn't quite tell if he was instructing me or mistaking me, but now I could feel his
skin against my skin. Hot, needful. He pushed inside of me, grabbing my hair in one fist. “Vera,” he said again, and then he didn't say anything more. Pressed his forehead into my neck, gasped and sighed.
There will always be a Vera
, I remember thinking.
One way or another.

48.

As we cleaned ourselves up with a packet of tissues, a rock hit the window of the greenhouse right near my head. I jumped.

“What the hell?” Lev said. He ran outside to see if he could catch whoever'd thrown it, but I was more concerned with the glass. Even a hairline fracture could affect the greenhouse's temperature, and though I could cover it up with paper and beg Facilities to rush in a replacement, we'd risk losing several of the more delicate plants. I ran my hands all over the pane: nothing. Maybe a scratch. I slid down to the floor and rested my head on my knees.
It's ok
, I told myself.
Nothing happened.
But I was still rattled. Who would do such a thing? It seemed too providential to ignore.

Lev puffed back through the door. “I didn't see anyone,” he said. “Probably just boys.” In his exerted state he looked a bit ridiculous, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief and straightening his collar as if getting ready for another round of polo at an afternoon fairground. I tried to smile, but couldn't muster anything very convincing, and Lev offered a hand to help me up and pulled me into a tight squeeze. He wiped some dust from my rump. “Don't worry about it, darling. Come give me a kiss good-bye.”

A sob broke from between my lips, surprising me. I'd known for weeks that he was leaving, but now it was real; now it was now. I clutched him to me and pressed my nose to the front of his shirt, mindful not to grab his jacket with enough force to leave wrinkles. I tried to inhale him in short, inelegant gasps.
He's going to rescue the novel
, I told myself.
And you're going to rescue him.
Lev laughed and tilted my face up to his, and kissed me. I felt like I would never see him again. Or he would never see me.

“Good-bye, little working girl,” he said. “Little hero. You'll just have to bear the silence. You have a job to do, after all.” By silence he meant: he would not write me. Too much of a risk, and too unlikely to find a reliable postman.

I refused to watch him walk away, as I knew he would be whistling, a spring to his step. Man on an adventure. The sky was a painful blue, and there were fledglings swooping round the lawns. Everyone believes themselves to be the exception to unflattering natural laws, but I knew then I was not immune to envy, self-pity, fear in the face of certain danger. Forcing myself to breathe, four seconds in, four seconds out, I took the pills from my pocket and rattled them in their envelope. Each full of poison and bound for the gullet of a woman I'd seen a hundred times in my dreams, and often enough through her own front window. As I listened to the shift of capsules against paper, I began to calm down.

I was a peasant girl, after all, hardy and strong. I had lived through worse trials than this: there was work ahead, but at the end the future would belong to me. And now it was time to get started.

49.

The day I went to visit Vera I woke up early and drew a hot bath, sipping tea while it filled and then lowering myself in slowly, savoring the light burn. For half an hour I scrubbed and soaked, shampooing my hair and taking a pumice stone to my heels until I was clean and smooth and red as a tomato. After drying off with a fluffy white towel (one of my first indulgences after winning my raise; growing up our towels were threadbare and rough, holes nibbling away at the edges, and the one I'd been using since my arrival in Maple Hill wasn't much better) I painted my nails red and sat still for half an hour to let them dry, hazarding the lacquer just enough to turn the pages of a magazine. My hair was set in curlers, and with my nails done I blew it dry into a cumulus halo.

Lev didn't much care for the looks of me done up. He accepted it when we went out to restaurants or on other special occasions, but he preferred
me in what he called my natural state, with dirt riming every ridge and my hair tied up in a bun. You have to understand, I didn't let him keep me from proper hygiene, but I took special pleasure in getting ready now, knowing he wouldn't be around to pout or moan about my hairspray. Anyhow, one always dresses with more care for a woman.

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