Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (3 page)

Our scoutmaster would call:
Vsyegda!
and we would shout back:
Gotov!
Always prepared. The cry of scouts across the globe. I joined the group at twelve, a little later than most, as I'd spent all my previous summers working in the countryside, and Vera showed up halfway through that same year, though I was never clear on her age. Older, surely. That was
the brief, golden period in which my father was thriving in the new world order, and our house's star seemed on the rise. It would not last long, nor would it end well, but I didn't know that yet.

I remember walking into the meeting hall that day, following close behind two girls named Lidya and Marta whom I'd been hoping to befriend. I was watching their shoulders move up and down as they skipped along, the slender points of them rising up almost like the tips of wings. There was something about the turn of their ears, the tapering of their ankles that I couldn't keep my eyes off of, a magnetic drag in their every shift and shrug—I was terribly intent. My lips parted slightly, ready to speak if only I could find the right words. So while they saw the new girl right away, for a moment I missed her.

When Lidya and Marta stopped abruptly, I ran into Marta's back, sending both girls bubbling across the room in a fit of giggles. I looked up, face burning. But Vera took little notice of us. Who knows how long she'd been there, alone. Sitting on the edge of a wooden folding chair, one foot perched on the other. Red scarf cheerful and knotted, just like the rest of us. Her white shirt, though, was darted in here and there to fit her figure, and her skirt was hemmed an inch too high. Our chairs were organized in an imperfect circle and I sat opposite her, each of us at an apex. I admit I didn't like her then. Something in her gaze, which wouldn't rest on any face and just kept flitting around, to the top of the corrugated wall, to Lidya's inexpert fingernail polish, to the ceiling, to the floor.

The hall was enormous, an emptied-out warehouse lent to the scout troop on a weekly basis. We came in through a metal door on one end and sat under blinding fluorescent lights, occasionally using the space to run bomb drills or practice marching in formation for parades. The concrete floor was smudged with black in places where we'd lit preparedness fires; one day our scoutmaster had asked us to bring in kindling and then handed matchbooks to us in groups of three. By the end of that hour, half the troop had inhaled dangerous levels of smoke, but we were so proud of ourselves that most stayed overtime, toasting bacon on camping forks. Now, anyone could see that Vera would have none of this. Game play. Camaraderie. There were charcoal smears on the bottom of her smart
little shoes, and with a shuddering foresight knew I'd find those same shoes in a charity bin a few weeks later, and be forced by my mother to take them.


Rebyata! Posmotritye!
” The scoutmaster stuck her cigarette in the corner of her mouth and clapped as she called us to attention. “We have a new comrade today, Verena Petrovna Volkova, so please make her feel welcome.” Fifteen pairs of eyes turned to Vera, bored into her. The scoutmaster clapped again. “Remember that we are stronger together.” In response—whether to our scrutiny or simply the idea that she might not be perfectly self-sufficient—Vera crossed her legs the other way.

We spent the afternoon learning how to track, and, more importantly, learning how to evade detection if we should ever find ourselves in the woods and facing heavy enemy fire. It wasn't one of our more practical lessons, given that we lived in the city center, and it ended in a kittenish game where each girl was given a ball of yarn to mark her trail. The object was to walk around as much of the room as we could without crossing paths. My yarn was blue. Vera's, red. She passed it from hand to hand, stretching her fingers away from the staticky threads and then squeezing them tight. The scoutmaster, her hair in a perpetual wave, leaned down by Vera and told her it was ok if she wasn't very good at the activity yet. Everyone had to start somewhere. “
Poprobuytye, pozhaluysta
.” Try.

As we unspooled the first of our yarn I was mostly interested in Lidya and Marta, who had taken to holding hands when they saw me, and running away. It didn't take long, however, for me to realize how poorly they were playing the game. Every few feet their threads intersected, orange over green and then green over orange. They shrieked when they ran into other girls, and made mock guns with their forefingers and thumbs. Even their attempts to be serious led mostly to slapped wrists and volleys of useless admonition: “
You
go left.” “No, you.” “No,
you
.” All the while, Vera walked the room's long perimeter, occasionally hopping over a box or dodging under pieces of sharp-edged machinery. Staying unnoticed, if not unseen. I began to follow her.

In the years since, I've learned that there are veins in the human body so long that, if uncoiled, they'd span city blocks. City limits, even. I've also
learned that the blood inside our bodies starts to look blue if it's buried deep, and needs to be pumped with oxygen. It's appropriate that the image of me trailing behind a young Vera would be one that mimics a trajectory towards the heart. The door to the hall was cracked open, and from time to time a bit of wind would lift the yarn, and then settle it back down. A red string and a blue string, side-by-side. Two little rivers, rushing.

I followed Vera for a good five minutes, careful to keep my own trail far enough away from hers that they wouldn't be shoved together somehow and lose us the game by stupid default. She never turned around or glanced over her shoulder, so I assumed she didn't mind. And why, after all, should one person reach the finish alone when two could go just as easily? The meeting was almost over, and my heart began to pick up speed as I imagined the scoutmaster praising us for following her directions so well. The other girls would look at me with new interest—me and Vera both—as we held our hands aloft in victory.

Vera slowed down as she approached one of the room's far corners, and I paused too, holding my yarn in place with the toe of my shoe. Based on what she'd done so far, I expected Vera to duck around a stack of crates and continue down the length of the wall. But there must have been something else in the way, because instead she turned sharp on her heel and stared at me, her face as blank as paper. I realized the reason she'd let me follow her wasn't charity or goodwill: she just hadn't known I was there. Within seconds of starting the game, she forgot the rest of us existed.

“You need to go that way,” Vera said, indicating me back with the flick of her wrist. The first words she ever spoke to me. And the last for many years. When I saw she was instructing me to cross another girl's line in order to clear her own path, I felt an unexpected resistance.

“No,” I said. “I'm winning.”

She shook her hand at me again, nodding her head in the direction she intended, but I stood firm, weaving the loose end of my yarn around and around my fingers. And then I saw a shutter go down behind Vera's eyes. She looked at the yarn on the ground, all the various threads intersecting around the room, plus our two paths in perfect perpendicularity. A pile of wool, all across the floor. Not just her path. A dozen of them.

Vera could still have won, then. Made a few careful pivots, dodged around me, headed back to the center of the hall. But I knew that she wouldn't. She had only been interested in playing when she thought she was making up the rules as she went. As soon as she realized she was part of something larger, and something entirely outside her design, the game lost all its value for her.

Dropping her remaining yarn into a red puddle on the concrete, Vera walked across the floor, past the circle of wooden chairs, and out the door. As she went she pushed a few of our threads around, smudging them together with everyone else's in a hopeless tangle. Not, I thought, out of malice. She just didn't care enough to pay attention.

The scoutmaster called us all back to our chairs and took a ceremonial puff from her cigarette. “Ok!” she said. “
Spacibo, rebyata!
I'll see you next week.”

Of course, Vera never returned to those meetings. No one mentioned her absence the following week or the week after that—probably the scoutmaster had been informed that her presence would be provisional, and was then told, more curtly, that the experiment had failed—until I began to think I had imagined her. Such a delicate girl, with her perfect, tailored uniform. Erect in her bearing, total in her indifference. I did become friends with Lidya and Marta, after a fashion, sitting in dingy teahouses together and taking up the hems of our skirts. Though we lost touch a few years later, when I was smuggled out on the orphan ship, and I have no idea what became of them or any of the others.

As for Vera and me, it would be a long time before we came face to face again.

9.

My attempts at mimicry, so successful with the Donne School teachers, didn't go as well outside the classroom—friendship being, after all, more delicate than intellect. You can fake your way into fear or respect or passing grades, but not affection. Or at least, that's how it seemed to me when I
tried to imitate my roommate, Margaret, who was the most beloved person I knew.

I watched her carefully whenever we happened to be in the room at the same time, or whenever we met in the halls: the way she poked her friends in the ribs with delight when they said something particularly nasty, and the way she laughed, scrunching her nose up to just the degree that her few light freckles were hidden by her mirth. Her beauty, compounded by her happiness. Though I liked the freckles, actually: she was the one who powdered them to death each morning, trying to pretend they didn't exist.

When she was away in class or out with a friend, drinking soda and smirking at the outfits of the passersby, I opened her drawers and lifted her sweaters up by the handful, pressing them to my nose and smelling the rosewater her housecleaner had sprayed them with after washing. Periodically, she sent a box of clothes back home to be cleaned and received a fresh shipment, which wasn't something I could aspire to, personally. (To whom would I have sent them? To what address? The past, c/o my deepest wishes.) But I saved up and bought a bottle of light cologne to scent my own wardrobe, which Margaret did in fact compliment, one time.

I watched, and I calculated the ways I could pick up her American habits: walk like she walked, smile like she smiled. Still, something was lost in the translation from her body to my own, the dialect of my limbs never quite tracking the lilting way she tossed her hair. To be American was to take what you wanted; to be American was to sit and laugh just so. Early on in my first semester the cafeteria served fries alongside their “famous” chicken-fried chunks of steak, and I noticed that Margaret alone ate them with both ketchup and mayonnaise, dipping one end in each sauce before taking alternating bites. I thought it was elegant, or maybe just efficient. Clever, in any case, and I found I liked the taste. Ketchup on its own was too sweet for me, but Margaret's method simulated the mayo-thick salads I was used to from home, served as treats with our most celebratory meals—I never did quite get used to the idea of “salad” denoting iceberg lettuce and cold tomatoes arranged on a plate.
Following Margaret, I dipped once, twice, with perfect confidence, savoring the bite of oil and the kiss of vinegar on my tongue. That is, until a girl named Sandy turned around to ask me for the salt and pepper shakers and visibly blanched at my behavior.

“What in God's name,” she asked, “do you think you're doing?”

I went still, one half-doused fry hovering above my paper ketchup cup. “Eating?” I said. But since she caught me off guard, I didn't have time to affect the cool voice I was piecing together from Margaret's intonation, and so it sounded like I suggested I was
Yeeting?
Which likely didn't help my case. Sandy squinted, taking in the ketchup, the mayonnaise, the little piece of potato pinched between my fingers.

“How very
European
,” she said, at last, making it clear that she did not consider Europeanness a compliment. After that, I endured several days of girls piping up in the halls with whatever little foreign phrase they could pin down, their aim so broad that I got as much
Parlez-vous français?
and
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?
as I did hearty shouts of
Comrade!
accompanied by punishingly affable smacks on the back. Only Margaret kept out of it, responding with a mild shrug to any comments made about me in earshot of her.

We all talked about ourselves in terms of colors and seasons that year, a game thought up by a rising senior that quickly spread throughout the school: I was a spring, what with my light hair and the green undertone of my skin. Margaret considered herself a winter, but she was more accurately late fall. Soft browns, mustard yellows, certain shades of roseate pink all set off her skin and hair, turning her from a spirited girl into a kind of forest nymph. She tied her loose curls back in a ponytail, or let them tumble down over her shoulders with delicate twists pinned up behind her ears. She often wore tartan skirts and polished oxfords, pressed white shirts with pearl buttons that somehow managed not to look too sweet. In vain I tried to read her like my personal Rosetta Stone, but no matter what I did to emulate Margaret, it wasn't enough. My true self always leaked through to the surface, sometimes frightening even me.

10.

“You.”

I was in the library one late-winter afternoon, grinding my teeth and trying to read Schopenhauer in an English translation. Marie's caf
é
had seemed, for once, too far to walk, in part because the wind that day was so frigid and sharp I felt sure it could peel the bark off trees and the skin off my back. But also, I had woken up with an unfamiliar nesting instinct.
Stay close
, I thought.
Stay here. Stay home.
So I'd hunkered down in a study carrel, twisting myself into a tight ball of irregular verbs and borrowed pessimism. When the tap came on my shoulder I jerked around, knocking my book off the table and startling the girl I found standing behind me into taking a step back.