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Authors: Adrienne Celt

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BOOK: Invitation to a Bonfire
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“No.” She snatched her arm away. “
No.
Lev is a great writer. There can't be any doubt.” Vera of the deepest privacy, Vera of the darkest truth. “Listen, I don't want that. I don't want his credit. I just want to make sure he can't erase what I've spent
my
life doing. He doesn't get both.” The house creaked around us, expanding and contracting with the stuttering cadence of a yawn. Vera looked at me from the corner of her eye. A
confiding look, I guess you'd call it. “Of course, if I had, they'd say he wrote them anyway. So what would be the point of that?” I leaned in, hoping for more, but already she was settling into herself, cooling off. “Women,” she said, with a little laugh. “The quieter we are, the less we're seen? The more we get done.”

Small details in the room felt rich with meaning I couldn't read: the brass of the teakettle, the single cupboard left ajar. Of course, I was the one making them symbolic, but there was a strange power in that. “I want to make sure Lev's memory is established now,” Vera said into the quiet, “so no one can change it too much when he's gone.” Nor her memory, I suppose she thought. But in this she was wrong. You can change empty space. You can write on a blank page. It's the easiest thing in the world.

59.

We sat at the table, scraping our bowls long after our soup was gone.

“The fact is,” she said, “he needs to go. For his own good. Before he can hurt himself much more. The story of him going after the manuscript is actually perfect, so long as he doesn't succeed in digging it out. Great golden goose lost in the bloody historical bowels. Buried treasure without a map. Lost art.” She looked thoughtful. “If he's got it, you'll have to burn it.”

“But the book,” I said. “I don't know if I could. What makes you think I
would
?”

“You came here to save it. You can leave to save it too. You just need a new way of thinking about safety, don't you? And besides.” She picked something up off the chair beside her. A stack of papers. Some of them letters, but also a manuscript tied with twine. “I didn't actually burn my copy. I just hid it from him. He probably could've found it if he looked, but for an artist he doesn't have a very inquisitive mind. If it comes out twenty, thirty years from now, no one will try to pretend it's a new novel. They'll see it as an archive. A youthful folly. Which it is.” She pushed the
stack over to me. “I thought you might need convincing, so I brought you this. Go ahead and read it. Then make up your mind.”

“He needs,” I stammered, “to go?” Without him I had nothing. The book, the man, the whole world was slipping through my fingers. Every kiss he might have given me, erased. Every minute of our future abolished. The dreams we had shared becoming nothing more than that: dreams, drifting away upon waking. My body began crumbling in on itself as understanding overtook me, my face puckering lemon-like and my arms hugging round my chest so tight they ached. I thought that Vera looked too calm, but maybe she wasn't. Once or twice she wiped at her eye, brushing away the tears that didn't come.

“Little bee,” she said. “You know what I mean. I've got my passport with me, my father's flat in Paris, when the time comes. I'm going to take you, of course, give you something brand new. But first you have to see this all through to the end.” All business now, she nudged the stack again in my direction. “We'll meet back here once everything's done, and in the meantime I'll make sure I'm seen here in town. There's a decent enough hotel for me to check in to, and no one will think to ask about you.”

“About me? But how will I do it?”

“You'll think of something. Like I said, you're smart.” She smiled. “That's why I like you.”

“You said that before.” I could hear the whine of fear in my voice, but couldn't stop it. “What in god's name makes you think so?”

Vera pushed her chair away from the table and stood. She was so petite, and yet she seemed to be made of heavier material than me, the gravity in the room all pulling towards her.

“I don't show very much of myself,” she said. “I know that. You can see more than most. Maybe you look harder.”

And with that she turned and left me alone with only Lev's too-familiar handwriting for company, hovering around me like a ghost.

60.

He said he couldn't write to me, because the risk was just too much. I accepted this. His absence, his silence. As I had accepted every part of him into me, each molecule, piece and parcel. The way his ears declared themselves, and his hands defined my body. Here the thumb curves over the shoulder, here the finger flicks the nipple. Eloquent elements. Lev told me he loved me, and I had no reason to doubt it, especially considering how much I loved him. Even the first day we met, hot sweat on his brow, chasing a young girl through the trees. Crashing out of the foliage like a monster in a story.

Of course, because I loved his mind, I treasured every word he said. The ideas he came up with: our fated communion. “Everyone I ever loved was leading up to you.” When we were naked, he was most loquacious, explaining our future and our past. The cosmic us-ness. He once took a razor blade and cut his name onto my arm, high up and on the underside. Not a thing that could quite heal.

All night I sat up at the table with a fat lamp and a pot of coffee, reading. First, Lev's letters: he hadn't sent a word to me, but he'd written Vera. Constantly, it seemed. Hasty letters on whatever slips of paper could be scavenged in the hounded towns Lev crawled through on his way to the border. I'd seen his notes to her before, but these had a new urgency to them, a desire to contain within them their whole life together. Trap it under glass. Perhaps he intended to make time stand still, but of course that was impossible. You could feel him, in the letters, plummeting through, even as he tried to hold on to every straw and scrap. Only to her, he wrote. Only to her. The coffee hurt my stomach and I spent an hour in the bathroom, voiding everything I could from my body. Still ending up with much too much.

The manuscript felt like a holy thing, compared. Pages curled up at the corners, paper frail. As I untied the twine a shower of dust fell as the fibers crumbled. I knew what Vera had said: it was a failure, a flop. But my hands shook as I set the title page aside; beneath, the ink was still glossy and
sharp.
Untitled,
by Leo Orlov. The lost novel. The book that had started it all. I made another pot of coffee and settled in.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom made of cardboard and glue.

It was—a difficult experience to describe. There were moments when I felt the ghosts of my past rise around me, plucking at my clothing, tugging my hair. Kissing me straight on the lips. Exhaust rising from the Moscow streets, long lines at every corner grocery, the tyranny of the butcher shop choosing who they'd allow to buy. Sometimes there were lines to nowhere: you'd turn a corner and see a row of people outside some stucco monstrosity, and when you asked what they were waiting for they all gave different answers. A babushka saying, “
R'iba
,” fish. A little girl, holding yarn while her mother knitted, who suggested blocks of baking chocolate instead. An old man, visibly drunk, just repeating “
Xhlieb, xhlieb
,” as if incantating the bread would bring it to his hands.

There were those beautiful moments of feeling home. And then there were the rest.

61.

Vera found me in the morning exactly as she'd left me the night before, curled up on an uncomfortable wooden chair and looking like the child of death. My face was less grim than sallow now, drawn and green from lack of sleep and the gnawing pain behind my breastbone. Heartbreak, I guess you might call it.

“So,” she said, efficient. “You'll do it.”

“I will,” I agreed. Why did I say it? Because she was right, I suppose, and because she had always had what I did not. At a certain point it was hard not to feel like that was because she deserved it all more. Lev's body, Lev's future, his pledge of allegiance—Vera had taken all that in hand while I was still a schoolgirl, trailing Margaret like a baby duck. She had built something beautiful enough for me to fall in love with, so how could I refuse to help her protect it? Even brutally. Even mortally. Vera didn't ask me anything then, just bustled around the kitchen
setting up breakfast. Not really cooking, still: we ate sliced fruit and drank the coffee cold from the pot. She did humor me by toasting our bread in the stove, as I'd suggested, though it came out just as burned from our misjudgment. That morning she was wearing a green blouse and pedal pushers, an almost American silhouette, except for the way her hair was set and her eyes so serious. I wanted to go and close them with a tender touch, mainly to stop them from looking at me with quiet triumph. Today had been my internal deadline, the time by which I should've carried out my (Lev's) plan. Which would've meant putting on gloves and moving her body in such a way as to make it look natural and suicidal. Her face held in one palm, on the table. Her shoes off, for comfort, but set nearby with care and an eye for the ordered tableau. It was windy but warm, and occasionally hard fronds of something banged against the doors and windows. Easier to imagine the aftermath than the act itself: my hair blowing into my eyes as I tugged my suitcase outside for the walk into town, which I had planned to undertake in lieu of ordering a taxi.

“You agree,” Vera said. She was seated across from me, eating her toast, and she narrowed her eyes as she put the words into my mouth. “It's important that you agree that what we're doing is for the best. You'll need your strength.” She had told me the night before that if he'd brought the book home, I'd have to destroy it. Just one more thing to take apart: burn it to ashes. She had fewer suggestions as regarded Lev. “You'll need your conviction.”

Hadn't I had this conversation before? The two of them were more similar than I'd had cause to know. Though maybe that was just my stubborn pride. Lev had told me often enough of the bound souls, the twinned core, the psychic line that ran between them, which I took for so much hyperbole. That people could be made for one another, each one wrought in paradox from the rib of their mate. Though I believed him easily enough when he said the same of me.

“It isn't very good,” I allowed. I'd re-bound the manuscript, re-tucked the flaps of every envelope. A touch unnecessary to show me all of those letters; surely one would have sufficed to make the point. “It has its moments, though.”

“I never said he wasn't a genius. It's just that he refuses to see that people care about your life, once you let them into it. He thinks he can do whatever he wants and that things will just—work themselves out. I suppose I'm to blame for teaching him that.”

“And you think history will forget? This? What you're asking?”

“I couldn't possibly guess. But I know it wouldn't forget a story like Lev's grand adventure leading up to a disappointment of these proportions.” True enough. I imagined the newspapers: starting with an affectionate blaze and then fizzling out in polite, confused reviews. The wilting of him—after
Felice
he got terribly vain—his sickening jaunty laugh turned into a painful cry. The worst part being the way he'd think:
She was right. She was always right.

Whereas if he died the narrative would change to a tragic man and his great lost work. Sales of his existing books would soar. People would love him to the point of distraction.

“So you're not angry about what he sent me here to do?”

She didn't flinch. Maybe twitched, at the corner of her eye, though she could also have been blinking away a spot of sand. The house was full of it.

“I've survived worse things than this” was all that she would say on the subject.

62.

The train ride home was different from the ride to Twisted Branch had been. My car was almost empty, just me and an old codger sitting at the other end, periodically hacking up some ball of phlegm and spitting it into a handkerchief. I was far enough from him that I could try, at least, to ignore the sound, and sleep pressed up against the window. When the conductor woke me to say we'd arrived, I had a red circle emblazoned on my forehead. No matter how I combed my hair it was visible, and only the adults at the station were too polite to point and stare. Children are wonderfully honest in that way. I'm learning to enjoy honesty now, when I see it in others, since it hasn't been my life's foremost principle.

The town of Maple Hill seemed changed. More warble, I suppose, and fewer straight lines. This could also have been the effect of temperature: we were experiencing a heat wave, and all around town there were toddlers eating ice pops to keep from overheating. I saw quite a few on my unsteady walk home, with lips of yellow, purple, green. I realized I'd never had a Popsicle myself, and paid five cents for one at the drug store, though they were reluctant to sell it to a grown woman with so many young lives on the putative line. I think the flavor was cherry; it made my tongue numb.

In a daze, I made it to my house and fell onto the bed and into a dead slumber. When I woke up it was dusk, the fireflies starting to wink on over the lawn. Where was I? I wondered. But I was in my own room. Had I ever really been to the ocean? Looming waves, shadows in the dunes. For a hot and horrible second I couldn't recognize my limbs, not hands nor legs nor feet nor arms nor elbows. Like waking up beside a stranger, but—inside.

It wasn't until the next day that I ventured out of the house. Lev was still gone, and would be for at least two weeks, based on what he'd told me before he left. Until then I had no choice but to wander around my life as though I still belonged in it. I made occasional trips past his darkened house, but otherwise, everything was normal. I trimmed the hydrangea bushes into perfect cheery spheres, and reorganized the watering lines with manic attention to detail. I made a goulash. John invited me to dinner, just like old times, and I tried my best to have fun as he and Siobhan plied me with wine and did impressions of the faculty wives.

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