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Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (22 page)

BOOK: Invitation to a Bonfire


A Morning of Mourning

From the
Maple Hill Reporter
, July 11, 1931

MAPLE HILL, NJ. The residents of Elizabeth Glen, a neighborhood in the center of town, were shocked yesterday morning to discover a murder in their own backyards. Leo Orlov, a teacher at the elite Donne School for Girls and renowned author of such works as the internationally bestselling
and the novels
Sun Sort
, was found in his bedroom with a gunshot wound to the chest. No suspects have been identified at this time, but the police have confirmed that the novelist's wife, Vera Orlov (n
e Volkov), was absent at the time of the shooting, and that her current whereabouts are unknown.

“It's a very safe neighborhood,” said local Sadie Kensington, who lives in Elizabeth Glen with her husband, Daryl, and two children, Samuel (6) and Denise (3). “This really makes you wonder though, what do you not know about people?” The
will publish updates on the situation as it unfolds.




Are you excited to know we've arrived? Or nearly so, at the moment of collision between present and past. It's quiet while I wait for Vera to return from the grocery store, where she's probably flirting with the checkout boy in that obscure way of hers. They like it very much, though she never smiles.

Sitting here, I have the almost constant urge to stand up and take myself back to the greenhouse, if only to reassure myself that it's all still there. Go about my chores. Check the moisture underneath the summer blooms, perhaps cut a bouquet of zinnias and phlox. Set them in a vase of cool water. I haven't been gone long, but it already feels like forever. I worry about when I last rotated the banana tree, and whether John will be able to tell when it needs to be moved to a brighter exposure. I would love to kiss my mother good-bye, ask my father what he did and why it was so dangerous. Ask him whether, in the end, it's really better to be happy or to be good. What he'd choose for me now, after all that's happened. All that's still to come.

I think about John, too. Imagine him leaning on the door, picking mud out of his boot with a stick, ready to pull me into a hug and tell me—well, at least to say good-bye. I know I can't stay, but I'd like to see him, even from a distance. The sunburned top of his head where he won't admit he's balding. The round pouch of his belly and the fibrous bubble of his nose. Dear man, he thought he knew me well.


When I got back to the cottage, it was empty. Quite according to plan: we'd agreed that Vera would join me when she saw the notice in the paper, and until then I would wait. A few days alone, no great hardship. The kitchen was stocked with tins of soup and boxes of ready-made, easy-bake, cut-and-dried concoctions. I wouldn't starve, and I wouldn't leave. That first day I spent a lot of time opening cabinets and taking inventory. There was only one kind of beans (kidney) but there were twenty cans of them, and in the cupboard above the stove I found a selection of very nice teas. Milk in the refrigerator as well as some fruit, though the apples were yellow and shriveled, the size of a child's fist.

For a while I walked around the living room, tracing the coiled pattern of the rug with my footsteps. The center moving outward, or maybe the opposite. It was dirty, grime having worn in between the layers and settled there, no matter how much they tried to beat it out. An heirloom kind of thing that someone must've made by hand, which would take weeks of work and a sack full of rags, old baby clothes and retired dress shirts and tablecloths. People wrapped bodies in rugs sometimes, I thought, wasn't that right? Then I tried to shake the thought away. It—the rug—probably just came from a craft fair in some old Shaker town, a throughway full of antiques and collectibles. It was designed to look beloved, but that kind of thing could always be had at the right price, in this country: the life you wanted, or at least the appearance of it. Finally I kicked the rug aside and went to the fireplace to try my hand at opening the flue.

Vera had thoughtfully left me several books for entertainment, but I wasn't able to read much. Mostly I wrote down everything I knew, everything I remembered, and when I was tired I walked along the seashore. I got used to the way cold water seeped into the soles of my shoes, so they made my feet chilly even after I'd left the beach, just as I got used to having sand in my hair. My bed is small, with starched white sheets, and there's sand all throughout it. I can't decide if I brought it in on my body, or if my body was, by lying down, polluted. It doesn't matter. What's done is done.

It took three days for the local paper to print the story, or at least it took three for the notice to reach Vera at her hotel in Twisted Branch. Midway through, it occurred to me that I had no assurance that she was in Twisted Branch at all: there are a number of adjacent towns, some closer to Maple Hill, some farther away. She could've just left, and I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. All I had was her promise that we would have a new life in Paris, and that was supposed to be enough.

I spent those three days in increasing agony, crumpling the useless newspapers up into kindling after I'd paged through them. Three days of opening a book and then closing it again, washing the same pan every evening and hoping my stomach wouldn't feel too bad after another meal of beans. Then one afternoon the knob twisted on the front door, and it opened, and there she was. I do think she stayed by the ocean at least, since she's got a fresh spattering of freckles across her nose, and a pinkness beneath: pink, like the rim of a mouse's eye. When she arrived she embraced me, and I could've sworn she'd grown much larger, her face all high and distant with a light that shone behind. She kissed me on the edge of my lips, and I felt the burn of it for some time afterwards.

She was very solicitous. She drew a hot bath and placed me in it, rubbing peppermint soap all up and down my back and asking me questions about how I left him. Were there smudges from my mouth on a cup? (Lipstick on cigarette.) Did I wipe the gun clean of fingerprints? (Hardly.) Did I touch him at all? (Entirely.) She wanted me to know that I was perfectly safe with her, though when I started to cry, heaving and phlegmatic, she didn't like it. I grabbed her wrist and she pulled it away, splashing water across the floor.

It's been a week since then. Most days, Vera seems satisfied. She floats from room to room flexing her fingers, as if new and uncomfortable strength was flowing into them. The way a child's legs hurt in a growth spurt. She's been making lists with an increasing frenzy, phone calls to her travel agent that she doesn't let me hear. I stay out of her way in my room or walking on the beach, and sometimes when I come back in I notice that a page I've been writing on has moved, though naturally this could be my imagination. Vera hasn't yet explained her plan for getting
me out of the country, since I told her it would be a risk to use my passport. If they have any notion about what I've done, they'll be watching for me. She says I worry too much.

Sometimes when I walk into the room where's she's planning, thinking, I can feel myself crawling like a beetle over the bones of her hand. If she realized I was there, she would shake me onto the ground and she would crush me. But how can I help letting her know? It's in the nature of my trivial feet, my clicking wings. Generally if she sees me lurking, she calls me over and asks me to make tea. Which is companionable enough. But sometimes, too, she looks at me like I am dinner.


All it would take is a single phone call:
Yes, Officer, I did notice the girl had an unnatural attachment to my husband. Of course I would appreciate being left out of the questioning, but I can tell you where she'll be at such and such time, on such and such day. I'll be heading out of the country. A period of mourning. You understand.

I could be inventing things. But in my experience a terrible feeling is usually followed by a terrible act. I used to think if I followed the rules, every new set, I'd get to the end of the rainbow, the end of the line. Now I think I'd do better to make my own rules. It's what everyone else does.


Maybe you're concerned about me, dear reader. Don't be. Vera will be back from the store soon, and in the meantime I've tried on several of her dresses, plus a blouse, and that pair of work pants she wore to the jetty caf
. Turns out they were rolled up because they're much too long for her, which is lucky; we aren't the same size, but it's mostly a problem of length and height. I can button her nice wool skirts around my waist with ease. (Not eating well lately has helped. I've dropped five pounds,
maybe ten. Dinners of oyster crackers. No matter.) They fall to just above the knee, instead of mid-calf as I'd prefer. But I only have to manage for a little while.

It's easy to want what you do not have: I would know. My life has been a study in this. In Moscow I saw girls with fox-fur coats, and when I say girls I mean ten years old. Though what I really wanted was not the coats, but the feeling of a small creature tucked around my throat. The feeling that, if I could not control the weather, at least I could gather a group of mammalian ushers to shield me from the harshest wind. I wanted my dreams to come true, even the ones I could only describe as colors or sensations. Yes, I wanted power.

The wind is high today; chilly for midsummer. Vera always overextends herself at the store, and will be wanting a cup of tea. The cabin's rent is paid through the end of the month, though of course that will soon become irrelevant.

I asked her: Don't you need to go back to Maple Hill? Not just to talk to the police and show them you're grieving (which I assume, or assume she could put on like a jacket; tears for the camera), but to gather your possessions and make an inventory? Their house was not enormous, but it was nice. There were wedding photos on the walls, Vera radiant in her white gown. She told me she has everything she needs. That she spoke by phone with a very sympathetic detective, and can withdraw cash with just a signature. She's good at letting things go, I guess. Her father passed away a long time ago; he couldn't manage the transition, postwar, and took his own life, leaving her his empty apartment in the fourteenth arrondissement, which has gone quite fashionable in the years since Lev and Vera left.
The police?
She snorted.
The police will be no trouble at all.

In Paris she'd be
une veuve jolie,
a beautiful mourner. Black cr
pe, black polished shoes,
la pauvre femme en deuil.
There would be no reason to stop her at passport control, as she isn't the official object of any investigation, and if she meets with a Parisian police inspector, that will be her duty fulfilled. If she becomes a benefactor to the Donne School, they'll lean on the local sheriff to avoid any line of questioning that places her under suspicion. That's what she says, and I believe her. She walks so confidently.
It's a step you can pick up, with care, a little like imitating a person's voice on the phone. I've made a study of her notes on Lev's manuscripts, which she didn't think to destroy along with her letters, and can now do a passable version of her handwriting.

I couldn't save much of Lev's, in the end. Not for myself. His gifts felt empty of him (presents without presence, kind without kin), so I left them behind in Maple Hill, where perhaps they'll act as clues or links between us. Twenty dollars spent on gold; a bangle abandoned in a gardener's apartment. What I did save was a folded envelope, and the tablets sliding back and forth inside. Powder held safe from the elements, lying in wait. Vera was the most glowing one of us, the kind of woman God makes as an example to the rest.
, you can imagine Him saying,
is a life worth living
. A life of modesty and steam.
There will always be a Vera
, I assured myself,
one way or another
. With a dark rinse, I think our hair will look quite similar. She sets it to the side, in a style that's easy enough to replicate with the right number of pins.

My mother told me to take cues from my betters. Learn their habits, and track them like deer in a live wood. Keep watch of their movements, and, if it helps, imagine you've tied a line of bright yarn to one ankle to make their path clear. Vera puts two spoonfuls of sugar in her tea before even sipping. She and I share a soul, or so Lev insisted. Why not share a little more? I found out yesterday when she went to town for a bottle of wine that she doesn't carry her passport with her, nor check it for safety upon her return. Easy enough to move it into a clean purse, where I will slide her wallet too. Take her wedding ring from around her finger, though I doubt it will fit on mine. Something to ask a jeweler about when I arrive in France.

A fire in the fireplace might pop and get out of hand. In a place like this, made all of wood, the destruction would be catastrophic. Police, when they come, might find a woman's body burned clean of all identifying marks, except the locket—my locket—around its neck, and scraps of my clothes melted to the remaining flesh. Why would they look closer? Already they'll have found my fingerprints on the gun that shot Lev, and it can't be long before they match them to the set that's been on file since the
orphan boat carried me to America. Remorse, they'll think. A murder and then a suicide. Not the most shocking idea, when you get down to it.

And then imagine: a woman walks onto an airplane and smiles, ironic and wan. She answers questions from the stewardess with an exhausted
before waving her off and falling asleep with a scarf tied around her hair
I don't speak French well, but Vera doesn't talk in excess, and I can pick anything up in time. I will avoid her old acquaintances, if any still remain, and eventually it will be my face that people associate with her name, if only through the force of habit. Not such a strange thing, for a widow to hide herself away, especially when she has her husband's legacy to maintain. Correspondence. The occasional grieved statement made by postcard. A packet of papers, a yellow old manuscript, locked in a safe underneath her bed. Maybe two packets, if I can't bring myself to burn these pages after all.

With a bit of effort, a bit of distance, I know this too can be smoothed over. We forget about the atrocities of history all the time, so long as there is a fair conclusion. The poor rising up to take the place of the rich. The dead living on in our earthly memories. Practice saying it: I am Vera Petrovna Orlova. I was born Vera Volkova, just outside Moscow, on an estate that would rival Arthur's royal seat. I can make things happen with the strength of my mind, the force of my will, and it was my prerogative to disappear. I hold my secrets close, because there's no one left alive who'll understand them. No one left at all, but me.

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