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Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (2 page)

BOOK: Invitation to a Bonfire

I knew her, but we didn't run in the same circles (except once, but I'll get to that in its proper time). While she was being tutored at her family's estate on the outskirts of Moscow, and later—having finally fled the Reds who won the war—at their dingy Paris apartment, I was educated in a string of cramped facilities paid for by the Soviet State Commissariat, perfecting my handwriting and avoiding any historical facts that might have been deemed counter-revolutionary.

My parents were on the right side of the war between the Reds and the Whites, of course—which is to say, the winning side. They embraced the changes in our country, from the ideological to the typographical, purging the aristocracy and the last remnants of Old Slavonic spelling from our lives in one fell blow. I remember when the signs and posters in the city quietly rid themselves of the
tvyordi znak
, a silly little mark that looked like a
and did—well, it didn't do much, but the new regime understood that words and symbols meant something. That changing the language was the same as changing the fabric of reality and the shape of the human mind. It was an exciting time. Occasionally people burned their old typewriters in enormous civil bonfires. Occasionally, too, the Party called for more serious sacrifices.

There's a reason, you see, that I didn't stay on in the country of my birth and apprentice as something useful and hardy: a machinist, say, or a land surveyor. A reason that I am, instead, a young woman huddled in a small cabin by the seashore, scratching out stories in the terrible quiet. My parents died a few years into the new and glorious union of our country. First my father, then my mother, and all official memory of our family as
a unit. At fifteen I was taken to an orphanage—a bleakness that I've worked hard to scrub from my mind, without success—and then at sixteen was smuggled into the U.S. on a hush-hush transport ship along with a hundred other children, all of us plucked from our uncomfortable beds and promised a better life, which we needed very much.

What do I remember of the orphanage? The shock of being there. The cross-stitched portraits of Party members framed and hung along the walls, with eyes that watched you move around. It was considered beneficial for us to work on those cross-stitches together in the common room no matter how badly we sewed, and even once I landed on the transport ship I felt pricks in my inept fingers and thumbs from where my needle had pierced the skin. In the orphanage we were told how lucky we were to be raised not by parents but by the motherland herself, and our caretakers frequently used this excuse to smack us into place when we strayed. Rulers sharp on the back of the hand, backs of hands across the cheek, all in an effort to vouchsafe not only our own futures but also those of the Party and the
the brotherhood of all mankind. I remember being hungry. I remember a great many dark walkways, blank and featureless faces. And then I remember being carried out in someone's arms, and told I was going to sail for America.

A beautiful voice offered me amber fields and purple mountains. Majesty. I had studied English in school, but still I assumed there was some misunderstanding, because who would bother giving anything like that to me? A new home. A new life. I didn't know then that the mountains and fields were just lines in a song, which the man hurrying me towards the boat was probably singing to keep himself warm: it was a bitter evening. But I decided to put my faith in this new place, just in case. I figured it had to be better than fighting to remain where I'd been.


We didn't have an easy time getting there, though. During our voyage to America, waves of flu swept through the ship and bad weather dogged
us. The girl who shared my bunk turned green within a day of setting sail, and took to moaning and shivering beneath our quilt, asking for death. Little Marlenochka. I spent hours trying to find a spot of healthy pink on her skin to report to her in the hopes of earning a smile, sometimes searching from her hairline to the soles of her feet with no success. The attention didn't soothe her much, even as I scratched her gently with my fingernails and traced her ear with my thumb. She heaved up what seemed like gallons of saltwater, though of course that can't be right, since I never saw her eat more than a few bites of dry cracker, or drink more than a sip of bouillon tea. I can't imagine what became of her after we landed. She was so briny, so continually moist. And not alone in that. The bunkrooms belowdecks stank of vomit, and those of us who could still walk would stroll the deck for hours in search of a clean breath of air. But it was slippery up there, and we were weak; many children disappeared without a whisper. I didn't get sick until halfway through the trip, but I remember trembling against the rail of the ship, staring into the ocean and seeing, to my utter shock, the dinner-plate eye of a whale rise up just a few feet away, clear though untouchable. Was it, I wondered, a hallucination? Certainly it seemed unreal. The eye was wet with tears and seawater, full of sympathy I'd never earned or even dreamed of. The giant grey body moved beside us silently, ruffling the water like it was rearranging a blanket. I began to cry, and then to pray to this giant creature—badly, I'm sure, having never prayed before. The waves were colorless, and I reached towards them. Then the whale sank out of view.

Despite the hardships we faced in transit, my faith in the American promise remained unshaken. Altered, perhaps, when there was found to be a shortage of aspirin on board, and our fevers were treated with rest and stale tea. Further transformed when we arrived at port and were told that, for reasons of national security, we might not be allowed to disembark. But this only made me more eager to kiss the American soil when I finally stepped down onto it. Everyone smiled at you in America, whether or not they meant it. I found that interesting.



15 June 1931

Airmail via London

Vera. Even your name intoxicates, incinerates. Veer-a. A swift turn on the road, a gasp at the end of the act. My Vera. You were Renka, standing on your tiptoes at the edge of the bridge, peering at the line where the water and the air connected. Verena Petrovna behind your black mask at the ball, lit by lamplight. But for me, you were always Vera, first.

I know we've been cold to one another lately, my darling, more so with every step I took towards the realization of this plan. My return to the homeland, a rescue mission for my lost manuscript, which you told me I should never find. I've been repeating the steps to myself every day and hour leading up to my departure: Locate a map with likely updates to the Soviet roadways: check. Befriend the American military and their biplanes: check. And now, traverse the ocean and land on a distant shore: check. But I don't want to leave things that way, and the closer I get to the streets where we first met, the more it seems the perfect time for honesty. You used to press me for stories about my early romances, and I always said no, not wanting to diminish in your mind the vision of our ideal connection. But now I think I see your point: how can you trust that my feelings for you are unique if you don't know my feelings for anyone else? Alright then, Vera. As always, you win. If it brings us closer, it will be worth it.

Of course there were girls before you. In particular there was one, a sweet thing of sixteen who I knew through my father; we went hunting at her country home near Tsarskoye Selo, just outside of Leningrad. It was a quaint place, just seven bedrooms and a sitting room full of brocade and exposed stone, which they always brightened up at night with candles. They left the curtains open for evening cocktails, and I remember coming towards the house after a walk in the dark; above me a sea of stars fell in every direction as if a divine huntress was shaking droplets of water from her hair. And through the window, another set of bright white points, one of which was in the hand of the girl. She moved from one end of the room to the other towards an object I would never know. Her chestnut hair shone upon her head; her skin was white, almost frozen. That passage, no more than a few footsteps past the window glass, seemed to contain within it my whole life's purpose, my whole mysterious volition: delicious, untouchable, motivated by something just beyond my grasp.

When I went inside I felt certain the spell would break, and for a moment it seemed to. The room was stuffy with the musk of men—her father, my father, both of her brothers—and the fireplace flue was not quite open, so a hint of smoke lingered round the ceiling and the corners. As I walked through the door one of her brothers said something quiet and the other laughed—a sound that made my shoulders itch with the anticipation of a fight. They were tall, hulking. I was long and lean. I went to the sideboard and poured myself a glass of wine from the ready decanter, trying not to let the smoke bother my lungs and thinking how I might make a polite escape. Perhaps fake a chest cold? Pretend exhaustion? Even a girl was not worth this, surely. Then I turned. A single pivoting step that severed one part of my life from the next.

In the far corner of the room, she perched on an armchair much too large for her, so she looked like a child in her father's study. But such a serious child, and with such poise that I could have balanced my wine on her head without fear of spilling a single drop. The candle she'd carried sat on a small table beside her, lighting her up from below. Her eyes were dark with little points of light, galaxy marbles, runic hints. It was impossible to tell if she was breathing, so still did she hold herself. Not like a
doe in the woods, alert to danger. Like the hunter that doe has scented. Patient. Glacial.

Without knowing what I would say, I started to move towards her, but at that moment the maid came in and rang for dinner, and we were all ushered through into the cramped dining room for undercooked veal and a few stabbing attempts at conversation. Once or twice I tried to strike up a topic with the young lady, whose name was Diana, or Dina, but she was half the table away and stuck telling my father about her study of painting—a theme on which he was routinely tiresome, his own mother having dabbled in watercolor. Once or twice she flashed those eyes at me, and my body seized with wanting. Then we all went up to bed.

The week transformed into a series of excuses designed to push me into Dina's company. I switched from the steady gelding I'd been riding to a mare Dina thought a better companion for her own; the mare and I were bitter enemies from the start, she always pushing my leg into trees and intentionally stumbling over shallow creek beds, and me driving her so hard with my heels that she ended each day sweated half to death. We tore after rabbits instead of foxes. Plunged down embankments too steep to escape and trotted back and forth in twin pique. Dina just laughed at our rivalry, and rode her horse with the grace of a centaur. One afternoon I let her walk me to the river that bordered her family's property on the pretext that I give my opinion on opportunities to fish it, a practical task I could not have been more ill-suited to as a boy of seventeen, primarily enamored of books and cigarettes and the sound of my own voice. I knew nothing about fishing, and in fact forgot the explanation for our excursion as soon as we were out of sight of the house, though plenty of the creatures wallowed fat in the shade with speckled sides and deckled tails, confident and lazy. Dina let the back of her hand brush my fingers, and as we approached the water's edge I pulled her into an embrace. “We can't,” Dina whispered. She pressed her bosom against my breastbone, laid her head on my chest and clutched at me with her little fingers as I bent and ran my hands underneath her skirt. An hour later when we returned, her father asked about the fish and I was at a loss to give him any answer, until Dina smiled guilelessly and said, “He found the river quite singular.”

Her father was no fool, and as you can imagine, our opportunities to be alone together were swiftly curtailed: the greatest satisfaction I would derive from that point onward was in watching her astride that wicked mare from my wicked own. We were seated far apart at meals, and during the cocktail hour Dina's brothers took up all her attention, asking her to sing them songs they remembered from childhood or playing keep-away with ornamental jewels they plucked out of her hair. They endeavored to make a little girl out of her, but every childish game they concocted just emphasized her bloom into womanhood, a background of dishonesty illuminating a pure truth. Once, while passing me in an ancient narrow hallway, Dina touched my leg high enough up the thigh to ink the pressure of her fingers permanently into my skin. But she did not slow her pace, and soon disappeared around a corner, the tail of her skirt flicking back in a smirk. After we left I thought of her constantly, counting the seconds until we might be reunited. But when my father and I tried to make plans for a return trip later in the fall, we were met with the news that Dina had been shot through the waist by an incompetent hunter who mistook her brown riding jacket for a hide, and died of blood loss some five hours later, fevered white skin almost invisible against the bleached linens of her bed.

I used to dream of her laid out on a funeral bier, her burial gown flowing over the edges like snow. I dreamed that she stood up and stretched, sweet and sleepy, and truly believed that I might bring her back from the grave using only the force of my will. Girl on horseback, jumping death. She was my every fascination, my nightly rhythm, my dream upon waking. She was the only girl I ever loved. Until you.




I arrived in Maple Hill in January, halfway through the school year, and spent my first New Jersey winter wandering around and marveling at my good fortune. We suffered ice storms nearly every week, bad enough to take out the city's power, but cold was nothing new to me. When I woke up and saw my breath, I dressed practically, in layers, and topped myself off with the grass-green wool coat I'd bought at the local department store with the ten dollars offered to all combat orphans by the American committee that took on our care. They mistook the moth-eaten look of my old coat for war-torn: a bit of luck. Each day I tucked my hands into my clean new pockets to protect them from the wind and also to hide the holes in the fingertips of my gloves—I'd never owned anything brand new before, and I was grateful to the winter weather for giving me an opportunity to show off, however minimally. My lips in that freeze looked bitten, and my skin achieved a nearly fashionable pallor, though I would never quite lose the hardy peasant complexion that was my birthright. My roommate, Margaret, slept under an electric blanket; she kept it plugged in even during blackouts, and when I got up on those winter mornings all I could see was the tuft of her hair beneath her pile of supplementary quilts, and the electric wire snaking hopefully down to the floor.

Despite my coat stipend I was given nothing for shoes, and since the tread on my old boots was worn almost completely away I was forced to
walk slowly along the slick roads to keep from falling. I didn't mind. Everything was covered with a film of ice that looked, to me, like sugar glaze. On the bone-bare trees, on the holly bushes with their prickling leaves and poisonous red berries. On white picket-fence posts and holiday lights; on lost purple mittens and the occasional squirrel, fallen from its treetop nest as heavy as a paperweight. The cars lining the streets sported wipers shellacked to their windshields, and every mailbox was sealed tight, whether bearing secret gifts or only more cold air. (Sometimes, I admit, I imagined prying one open and seeing a living bird fly out; I'm not sure why this image appealed to me so much, but it was strong enough to push me once or twice into standing in front of a box and tugging at the metal lip, hoping for some give. Always, though, the approach of a car or some movement in a nearby window forced me to abridge my efforts.) There were no houses in Moscow, at least not like this, small and sweet and personal. There was beauty, of course: art nouveau and cracked gilding, windows that were stories tall. But nothing so pretty or pedestrian. Nothing, since I lost my parents, that felt so immediately like home.

Each day I made my way through the neighborhoods that surrounded the Donne School, sometimes taking deliberate steps, sometimes gliding along like a skater until I reached the strip of stores that constituted our downtown, where the sidewalks were salted dry. There was a bookshop I entered rarely but with great reverence, a market that didn't open until ten
., a dress shop next door to a tailor, and, most important, a little caf
that seemed to have prophetic hours, as no matter when I slid out of bed, I was always their first customer of the day. I never bought more than a single coffee, but it was refilled as long as I wanted to stay, and occasionally the proprietor—an old maid named Marie who wore gypsy skirts but sensible earrings—would slip a biscotti onto my plate alongside the white ceramic coffee cup. There, I would labor through the reading that allowed me to scrape passing grades in my classes. It had been expected that I would enter school a bit behind, with the limited English skills and (sadly temporary) refugee sheen I imported from abroad, which earned me some pity in those early days. But more than the language, I found it difficult to mimic the bravado of my classmates as they went
about their work, offering answers—in front of the teacher!—which were not only wrong but impertinent, while I crossed and recrossed my legs at the back of the room, trying to memorize my textbooks.

It wasn't that I didn't try, but it was all strange to me. The Donne School lecture halls were full of unfamiliar cheer, with paper murals and stacks of books you were welcome to pick up, flip through, argue with. The matching desks and chairs arranged throughout the rooms stayed somehow neat and refinished all year, despite the girls who put their feet up, leaking winter salt and ice onto the wood, and the girls who scraped at the varnish with their fingernails, peeling away long, almost weightless threads. Sometimes they picked out hairpins and used them to carve their initials, but even these small marks seemed to disappear within a few days or even hours, a handyman bustling in with a pocket full of sandpaper. Back home I would've considered these girls feral, scribbling their indecipherable notes and wearing stockings with the seams all twisted, full of runs. But here, the messier they were, the more abominably casual, the richer their families tended to be. And though I didn't understand it, I liked it. I liked them, from afar. They had pink book bags and they threw away half-eaten chocolate bars, which I had to stop myself from picking out of the trash. One or two of them chewed on their hair, calling up the memory of deep, inerasable hungers that I knew none of them had ever felt. I liked knowing that they hadn't. They flowed together through the halls, giggling and holding hands, studied in the library carrels with heads pressed together in dim lamplight, and I watched them, wanting to swim in that same easy water. We were often asked to give presentations or make speeches in class, and under this attention the other girls preened every bit as much as I recoiled. Because something unimaginable happened: when they finished, people applauded. Every day, every time. And I applauded too, as vigorously as anyone else.

Expressing a firm or independent opinion felt unnatural to me, and this made composition papers a struggle. I also didn't care to write about my family history, to the consternation of teachers and counselors alike. “Wouldn't it make you feel better to talk about what you've been through?” they asked me, and I always answered with a firm “No.” It's interesting
how time changes a person. I never would have relented to keeping a diary back then.

Between the bodies that eventually filed in and the radiator steam, Marie's caf
was endemically overheated, and I have many fond memories of sitting at a round table by the fogged-up window, sipping from my bottomless coffee cup. I remember that the room always smelled of the rosemary Marie baked into her scones, though I never had the money to buy one, and that the bathroom had the familiar, bouillon scent of a home whose inhabitants eat a great deal of cabbage. I often wondered if Marie, too, was in exile from some former life, but her nasal American speech made it hard to imagine what that life might be. (A limitation of inventiveness that I have since overcome.) We sat in companionable silence: me turning pages and slurping with unmannered indifference, she ringing up change and wiping crumbs off of tabletops, occasionally humming a jaunty tune that, despite being stuck in my memory, I have never been able to identify.

I was at Marie's when I made the discovery that turned school—or, at least, schoolwork—tolerable. The winter sun was halfway down, streetlights buzzing on outside, and I was exhausted by the effort of doing poorly, day after day. You have to remember, my studies were all I had at this point; everyone I knew or loved was back in Moscow, most now dead. As it was, I sometimes initiated chats with the Donne School gardeners just to feel connected to the earth again, and to get back a sliver of the confidence I used to feel among the sugar beet fields of Lipetsk. In the caf
, I leaned my head against the window so I could watch the hazy figures clip by on the sidewalk in their dark coats, heading home. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the faint outline of a heart drawn into the steam—some other child must've done it, on some other day. But when I pressed my finger to the glass and traced the line, a man walking by outside smiled. At me. My perceived whimsy. My perceived joy. And I realized: maybe I knew what to do, after all. There were plenty of opinions in the world, and any of them could be mine, if I only said so.

I took the theory to class with me the next day, thinking I'd start small and test the waters, nodding along during someone else's argument or raising my hand in a group of “pro” or “con” opinions during Civics 102. Back in Moscow I'd had plenty of practice trying on beliefs like sweaters and socks, to see which ones had holes in the lining and which might help me to survive. But that had been a matter of life and death. This was just participation points, adding up to a small percentage of our term grade. Still, I didn't want to fail.

Civ 102 was doing a unit on the Greek
system and the students had been divided into four groups, each assigned a different city-state. We got points for presenting compelling insights about our home
, and the winners had been promised ice cream. My corner of the room was Corinth—not objectively the most exciting, the height of neither scholarship nor war. But the project had inspired a cliquishness that had little to do with the realities of ancient Greek life. “Athens was the center of everything important,” sniffed a girl named Abigail. “Of course we'll win.” “Sparta will
kill you
,” hissed her best friend, Denise, pencil gripped in her fist like a dagger. I'd been conducting diligent research and offering up a trove of facts about Corinthian exports each class period—which was, I thought, the point of the exercise. But other girls wrote snazzy jingles. They made lightning bolts out of yellow paper as offerings to Zeus, and used the popularity of their projects as proof of their superiority in Greek society. Several of my teammates had complained privately that Corinth's financial status—as a center of trade and a source of fine pottery—was being unjustly ignored because Athens had better temples.

“We're the rich ones,” they whispered. “Who wouldn't want to be the rich ones?”

, I thought.
It was a fashionable enough sentiment that everyone would agree with it, general enough that anyone could have come up with it. And so, mid-period, when the teacher asked for arguments designed to win the daily rhetorical challenge, I raised my hand while the rest of my teammates were distracted arranging a row of flowerpots painted with black tempera.

“I think it's been overlooked—”

“What's that, hon?” asked the teacher, leaning closer as if to hear better, but also interrupting me. They were all eager to be the one to “get through” to me, or else (I suspected) to prove I was at heart a Soviet spy. I frowned, and muddled on.

“I said, I think we've forgotten how wealthy Corinth was. A, um, a—” I struggled to remember the exact term I'd underlined in last night's reading—“seat of commerce and industry.”

Silence in the room for a beat. Then one of the Athenians said, “So?”

My cheeks flushed. “So I mean, they were rich.”

? Did they have

“They had, um, the Bacchidae, an aristocratic—”

“Boring. We had Socrates.”

Behind me, I heard a pair of girls whispering, “Sure,
until you murdered
.” This was my chance. In truth, I didn't care about the ice cream social or even being right. But people were watching me, almost interested. The teacher was taking notes. No one was asking me about my parents, reminding me how I'd left them, how they'd vanished one by one—

“Maybe Athens had Socrates,” I said, “until they killed him. But money is power. Money is always power.”
New sweaters,
I thought.
Angora wool. Penny loafers. Midnight cookies. Nail polish.
The right to walk into a store and see the counter girl turn her smile up extra bright, and the ability to buy and buy, to change your life in small but measurable ways.

“That's … Well—” The teacher peered around the room, waiting for a rebuttal. None came. “That's a very vigorous position. I think we'll give the rhet point to Corinth today.”

I let out a small puff of air.
Really, it worked?
And so easily, too. My teammates surrounded me, patting my back and offering congratulations. One called me “buddy” and another told me to keep it coming with the good stuff. Even the teacher gave me an encouraging nod, placing a gold star next to my name in her activity log. I squirmed under the unfamiliar touch of so many gentle hands, but still—I smiled.


I hesitate to describe the work that earned me Bs and Cs that year as plagiarism: every word I wrote was my own. It's just the ideas that were borrowed, and the passion for them. My instructors were all relieved to find my papers suddenly passable—no one likes to fail the war orphan. And for my part, I came to enjoy whipping up a textual froth from the enthusiasms of Tolstoy, Thoreau, or de Tocqueville. If my ideas contradicted themselves from one assignment to the next—well. That was seen as the purview of youth. No one minded theft or inconsistency, even vitriol, so long as it meant you were making a statement. This was my first great lesson in being American, and I took it to heart.


Of course, Vera had no place at the Donne School then, except as a faint part of my memory, which I was always trying to excise. A character from the motherland, the life I left behind. Back where we met, there were no cozy split-levels or so-called French fries, no one calling you “little miss.” Moscow was a different beast. We had dancing bears, and the Arbat. We had underground businessmen with overlarge hats, and a winter so long and dark that it brought sense to fairy tales: why wouldn't you make a deal with a witch if she promised to bring out the sun? Our Moscow was a city of men slurring and ruddy with vodka, of old women competent, by necessity, to swing an axe—or at least, my Moscow was. Vera breathed a more rarefied air. But we shared the Young Pioneers scout troop, whether she remembers or not.

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