Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (7 page)

And of course, a girl in an apron and dirty dungarees, walking throughout with her hair pinned back, clutching a spray bottle. Her face pink with intelligence and care. Tending something vulnerable and helping it grow to its best advantage.

18.

But where was Vera in all this? Parallel. Elsewhere.

Soon after her maiden tutoress arrived she was whisked off to Paris to live in her father's wretched pied-
à
-terre. On the way there was a masquerade ball in Leningrad (
Leningrad!
she must've thought), because even her escapes were plush, whether or not she admitted it. She wore a black gown à la
Madame X
, and a black silk mask tied on with a ribbon. Her mouth turned down as she walked from room to room and realized her young tutor was not there. Could not possibly have been there, amidst the champagne and the desperation of the old guard, a few wearing tuxedos that were feathering and fraying at the seams. Vera stood by a little table, one weighted down by a tall potted plant. An aloe all the way from Arizona, with sharp points and rigid leaves on which the staff had secured candles, using epoxy. (My opinion as an expert: not an advisable approach if you have an eye to the plant's longevity.)

She was thinking of poetry. Dark and spleen-filled stuff, apropos her new situation, fueled by the glass of wine in her hand. A few men offered dances—older men, friends of her father's—and she refused, in no mood to please her
cher papa.
Behind her, a balcony. Below that, the Moika. Dark water shimmering with applied light, and in her fit of teen pique she let herself think
All is vanity
, before mentally slapping her own wrist for adopting such a quotidian sentiment with such real feeling.

Her wrist, which—suddenly there were fingers there. Not the sturdy hands of her once-beloved, but long, elegant digits smudged artfully with ink. She looked up, glad for the mask, because she hadn't yet decided on an expression.

Though she would, soon enough.

 

Lev

22 June 1931

Airmail via [Redacted]

Dearest Vera. Grandest and most terrible Vera. I know you're upset—shall we be very American and even say
peeved?
—to be left alone in that drafty Craftsman bungalow while I skulk around the border trying to persuade some young patrolman to sneak me across into the country we left behind. I know you disapprove of my entire project, from its conception to its most probable bitter end: a waste of money, a waste of talent, a waste of time. Not to mention the danger to my person, though I think this is the only part of the affair that might thrill you a little, your studious
pyatnik
turned buccaneer. Black-bearded and ready for anything, buckle or swash. I've even bought a gun, Vera. It's tucked in my waistband, a gleaming black pistol. I made the seller give me lessons.

I know you think it's beneath me, darling, but I need that manuscript if I'm to go on as a writer. As a man. It was my first: proof I can finish something once begun. You'll say that's silly, because it's
first
, not
only
, unless indeed you mean
only still unpublished, only repudiated and rejected, only unloved.
You'll say that in any case I won't possibly find it: a stack of yellow pages tied together with a bit of twine, which I buried in an old tin box outside the last trolley station on the outskirts of Leningrad. Maybe so, my dear one. Maybe so. But the spirit of the whole endeavor—my entire
raison
,
my vision and scope—lies in those pages, and it would be a violation of the artistic compact not to try and retrieve them from their early grave. Anyway, I told my publisher, and you know he's quite enthusiastic.

In the meantime it pains me to picture you bumping around alone in that house. (Or, let's be honest, sitting behind your typewriter catching up on correspondence. Making a perfect cup of tea, stirring three times counterclockwise. I'm not so foolish as to imagine my absence has entirely undone you or your routines.) And of course my own incompetence prolongs our separation; I don't have your talent for knowing which hands to shake, which guards to bribe with cash and which to slip bottles of vodka, cognac, or rum. If you were here, the pages would already be a
fait accompli
, but instead I've now wasted a week with my bumbling attempts at travel
incognito
. Not that I'm bitter, no. The unseasonal wind claws at my face beneath this thin balaclava, and you sit solo, tucked in that ugly wingback chair by the window. No doubt disapproving of me doubly: abandoner, and inept. And here I've been writing to you about my old love affairs. What rot, in this besotted brain.

Let me do better, Vera. Let me tell you the story of us, how the past echoes the future, how our separations always end with reconciliation, reconnection, reconnoiter, coitus. For example: you in Paris, me still degrading in Leningrad. Do you know how I obsessed over you then? Your nose, straight and slender. Your hair, which melted on my tongue like tar.

I couldn't stand imagining you crouched in that stinking room in the fourteenth, with your father smoking on the balcony, head lost behind the ambient cloud. Your hips zipped into last season's skirt, fingertips weary with the cold Paris spring as you set type. None of the essays worth the effort. Don't argue, it's true. You read them too. You cranked the printing press that duplicated them duplicated them duplicated them as that dreadful nursemaid sat knitting in the kitchen. What did she teach you, Vera? Bravery? Unconquerable hope? At least I hope she showed you how to mix a proper martini or choose the quality bottle of red from an otherwise weak cellar, but I suppose she was a teetotaler too. Did she know history? Botany? Interdimensional geometry? Where to find the best
café au lait?

(And yes, now I'm being sour to remove the sting of my own betrayal, made clear by the tart kiss you placed on my cheek instead of my lips as I walked out the door. At least your
pr
éceptrice
stayed by your side, Vera. She had that much on me.)

Your letters from that time told me so little about your days that I was forced into furious strolls along the canals, inventing villains for you to subvert or be perverted by; enemy soldiers behind your lines. I hope you forgave my petty jealousies, darling, then as now. The sad sketch artists I invaded you with, the bathos of the bad poetry I serenaded you with. I was so thwarted. My heart one grand thrombosis. Lev, minus levity.
Lev, mal.

It wasn't just your body I missed. (Though I don't want to mislead you, my youthful mind was far from pure. You've always been my poison tincture, turning the most solemn occasion to lust and stardust.) It was the whole of you, how you echolocate the walls of every room and press them ever outward, expanding the space. How you turn yourself into a pinpoint against the enormity, the only thing worth looking at in the whole wide world. Everything grows in your presence, Vera. Everything grows. (And yes, a black little pun still buried there, but I'll pretend you didn't see it. Some false solemnity, the better to corrupt you from upon our inevitable reunion.)

The day we met ruined me, you see. Made me. You won't begrudge me the reliving of it now, all the better to pepper my mind with flashes of your face: false idols relayed to the real.

It was a grim soiree. I'll set the scene: some seven years ago, one Lev Pavlovich, his face sallowed by hunger, which is endemic in the room but admitted by none. Seen as a class weakness. The party nonetheless thick with smuggled alcohol and pickled quail's eggs, a hundred days' rations traded up for a single ostentatious display. A sea of suits, unbespoken by time and tragedy. A sheen of masks, to pretend gaiety. Whispers of experiments performed by enemy combatants: kerosene secreted into the veins of all the comely Russian dolls, hoping to make them into ticking-tocking walking time bombs. Or maybe these rumors are mixed up with past indecencies; no one can tell heartless exaggeration from reality anymore. A man breaks down in the corner and says that the homeland is lost to them,
they will never return once they pass the borders, their memories will be ghosts. They are already ghosts. All the room's inhabitants. Partygoers shift nervously, and change the topic to something brighter.

A curfew is in effect; electricity
verboten
after eight
P.M.
, so the room is reduced to candlelight, which has an admittedly charming effect. Warmth implied by the glimmer and flicker. You know how I feel about candles, Vera. Even then, you felt it too: I know, because we have the same heart.

But still. I was bored and glum. There wasn't a single gentleman present who was fit to converse with, and every Leningrad lady was avoiding me after an unfortunate botched engagement. (Unfortunate for Lev, then. Not for this Lev. Our Lev. Now we can look back on the
flagrante delicto
in which he was caught with a certain affection that borders on sympathetic arousal. The girl was no match for you, but she was useful in her way.) The waiters circulated mostly wine, but I'd come upon a bottle of scotch stashed, or perhaps simply forgotten, behind a mirror in the marble hall.

Enter here: the darling imp. Her fingers light on the stem of her glass, tongue reaching out to lips to catch an errant drop. You stood by that grotesque cactus, soft body hitched and stitched into a defiant geometry. Behind you, the balcony. Below that, the Moika. How many times have I repeated this image to myself, wondered what you were thinking? Were you drawing a map of escape in your mind? Tracing lines in the carpets that hung for insulation on the walls? Had you spotted a cockroach and watched it climb into the pocket of an ex-counselor to the tsar? You wouldn't tell me. Still haven't. Your imagination is yet a locked box. Of course I didn't tell you, then, how you dragged the shadow of Dina behind you, catching my eye with her lost silhouette but keeping it with your impudent own. It seemed, after all, unimportant. As I approached you I understood anew the role that Dina had played in my life: not a tragedy, but a guide. Not perfection, but a mark of my own poor imagination, which saw in her the
ur.

I picked up your wrist and turned it over, watching the sweet blood run beneath your skin. You looked at me, quizzical. Mouth turned down. Hair squeezed by the black velvet ribbon that secured your requisite disguise. And then you smiled.

 

God Save the Motherless Child?

A look back at the so-called “orphan boat”

From the
New York Register
, Opinion Page, May 1928

NEW YORK, NY. Most readers will remember the daring rescue undertaken by the Committee on Futurity (commonly referred to as “The Furies”) some three years ago, when a group of orphaned Soviet children were secreted onto a passenger steamer in the hopes of bringing them to our country and offering them the best of American values. Details of the children's liberation were popular news at the time, particularly the unlikely series of tactics supposedly employed by the Furies, which included subterfuge, scout troops, coded newspaper articles, special whistles and hand signs, and the implausibly named “Cat Burglar Escape.” But now, with the arrival of the “orphan boat” at Ellis Island safely in the past, what do we really know about the children themselves and their plans for our nation? Attempts by this newspaper to track down and interview any of the orphans were firmly stonewalled by Fury spokesman Roberts and his team.

The notion that these children may not be innocent—that they may, in fact, have been part of a plot to infiltrate our home life with spies—first emerged along with the news that the orphans were not from German and Polish ghettos as assumed, but instead from Soviet orphanages all around the USSR. Suspicions only increased during the ship's two-week quarantine in harbor, which many hypothesized was due not to flu (as the
Furies reported) but instead to the heightened political tension around the ship's passengers. During this period, lights were frequently seen on the boat at night, and sometimes figures were spotted moving around the dock. Sources close to the
Register
insisted that occasionally the lights would “change color” or “move funny” in the dark, but these reports were never substantiated.

Thanks to an anonymous tip,
Register
reporters were on the scene when the children were finally released and sent on to their new American homes on a quiet night in December. Two hundred small figures were removed from the boat, huddled beneath coats and blankets, before being placed into waiting vans and taken to the nearest train depot. Although the crowd was told the orphans were young and sick, bystanders eager for a closer look continued to press toward the children, and flashbulbs popped regularly in the darkness. One onlooker even waved a knife in the air while declaring himself “ready to act” if necessary, and though this man was quickly subdued by authorities, there were some present who questioned whether his actions were those of a crank or a hero.

Three years later, we are still left with the same uncertainties. Was it charity to place these children with American families, or a boondoggle of the greatest order? Did they grow up to contribute productively to their households, or did they wait and watch for the moment they might undermine them? With the Furies still closely guarding their whereabouts, we're still no closer to finding out.

 

Zoya

19.

When I was one of them, the girls of the Donne School all seemed unique to me, each equipped with her own set of interests (which I knew of) and hidden talents (which I sometimes suspected), and peculiar embarrassments (which I rarely understood), not to mention a pair or two of infrequently laundered pajamas. They all had names: Jenny Hollinger, Leonora Torrance, Margaret Rathburn, Cindy Pink. Josephine Toff and Ashley Pearson, Regina Anderson and Leah Wills. It was only once I joined the staff that they became as one to me, a sea of girls washing forward out of classroom doors, dredged back into seats with the chime of a bell. Totally tidal and predictable. Utterly furious in their force.

It's true I endured my fair share of snubbing as a student—as I've said, I didn't really have friends. But it was accepted that I was supposed to be there. A little exotic, a little pathetic. Their mascot European exile with her heavy accent (embarrassing: I rid myself of this as soon as I could) and quietly ridiculous turns of phrase. Many fellow students recognized me as Margaret's roommate, and put me under their wing for that reason, helping me pick the one good dessert from a table full of sticky canned puddings, or stopping me outside the bathroom to point out the toilet paper attached to my shoe. (It took me years to get the hang of throwing soiled tissue into the toilet instead of a wastebasket, as I'd been taught to do back home. Especially considering the dented tins placed in every stall
for items of feminine hygiene; how was I supposed to know the difference? Lucky for me, none of the girls ever knew. I think I'd have been lynched, or would, at the very least, have acquired a sickening nickname.) At graduation we all wore black gowns and hugged on the lawn, creating a tableau not unlike my original dreams of the Donne School, but in reverse. Good-byes, not hellos. Dark clothing, not white. Still quite tender.

I expected things to carry on more or less the same way when the new semester started and I began my work in the greenhouse, after spending the summer reading horticulture periodicals and receiving daily tutorials from John O'Brien. Yes, it was unusual for a graduated senior to remain on campus, but I was hardly older than the rest of the girls. In fact, most of the returning students already knew me: as a former upperclassman, albeit an unpopular one. In perhaps the last gasp of my socialist-optimist na
ï
vet
é
, I really thought this familiarity would work to my advantage.

The first day was flush with move-ins, slammed car doors. I heard shrieks of greeting as I trudged to and from the greenhouse, carrying sacks of fertilizer and seedling pots from the back of John's pickup. We were behind our original schedule, still fixing things into place, but were confident about finishing on time, and anyway it added visibility to the project, having us work so vigorously in such plain view. Already that morning we'd scrubbed the glass clean and checked all the window seals, and we'd spent the past two weeks testing how well the space held its temperature when set to various levels: mild, tepid, hot, steaming. I had a hanging basket of spray bottles, some full of water, some nutrient-rich soil enhancers, some a mild dish soap solution to discourage pests. One had nettle tea. Now we were bringing in the plant life, and I felt an unexpected wave of maternal awe. Holding a flat of young tomatoes, I wanted to cry at the great vulnerability there at my fingertips. The spice smell, the fragile stems, the sticky hairs—it all combined, for me, into something quite infant-like, a cold and shivering tray of children being shuttled away from the only home they'd ever known. I wondered what it was like for them to ride in the bed of a truck,
en plein air
. If it was stunning. If they felt fear. Rocking gently back and forth like children on the deck of a boat in a storm. But never mind.

After we'd settled the fruit and vegetable selection, the more glamorous flora would be brought in. Some I was planning to start from seeds: a tree called Voon's banana that I had found in a catalogue, which purported to grow complexly flavored fruit and electric-pink flowers; some blue-tipped asters and iceberg superiors to use in floral arrangements around the school. But the administration didn't want to wait around for sprouts; they wanted showy color right now. They wanted pop. And who could blame them? Already families were mustering outside the new structure, trying to peer in through the foggy glass. By the afternoon we'd be crowded over, and if everything went to plan, the first impression people had when walking into the greenhouse would be of entering another world, steamy, rich, and bright. Parents would imagine their own young flowers blooming under the care of the Donne School masters, and students would picture themselves in a wild new jungle of possibility. The opening of the greenhouse should, I'd been informed, set the tone for the whole school year.

By lunchtime I was sweating, my hair tied up in a messy bun. I thought I heard my name called once or twice, but whenever I turned to wave hello I found myself alone, a pack of girls bustling away down the path with their heads pressed together and hands clasped tight. Giggling, punching one another in the arm. It always went that way on the first day, I told myself, with unions resumed and pacts re-sealed; and so if I felt a prickling on the back of my neck or an uncomfortable rumbling in my stomach whenever a set of eyes homed in on me only to divert sharply away, I ignored it. At noon I ran my hands under the greenhouse tap, wetting the blue bandanna John had given me to tie around my neck and wiping the dirt and sweat from my face. I had a year's pass to the dining hall, and although I'd also bought a hot plate and kettle with an advance on my salary, there was no time to cook for myself before the large exotics arrived. I'd need to be on hand to supervise where they were placed, how they were arranged; to make sure the watering system was correctly installed, and that there were fans angled around the room to provide proper airflow to every corner.

“Lunch?” I said to John. All summer we'd eaten together midday, choosing from the bare-bones selections the cafeteria provided for the
year-round staff, and I knew that with students and parents present the food would be more carefully prepared, a table of fresh-baked pies—apple, cherry, peach, pecan—set out to accompany the beef stroganoff and chicken
à
la king. “Just a quick one.”

“Oh, in there?” He frowned towards the dining hall. “No, hon. Siobhan packed me a sandwich. There's some to share, if you want.”

I considered the offer. Eating in the greenhouse was faster and easier; we'd finish in time to double-check our staging plan before the first truck showed up, and make sure no interlopers snuck in before the unveiling. It made sense, and I knew I ought to say yes. But I couldn't help feeling the reflected glow of the new semester on my skin—an afterglow, really, in my case—and wanting to take part to whatever degree I could. The festival air was so familiar that I half expected Margaret to turn the corner and give me a perfunctory wave. Plus, I knew the limitations of my own cooking, and didn't look forward to the months of scrambled eggs and sardines on toast that stretched ahead of me. A mouthful of hot food would do me good, I was sure.

“Ok, I'll see you in half an hour, then,” I said. John raised his eyebrows and dug around in the knapsack he'd thrown into a corner several hours ago, pulling out a pastrami on rye.

“Your funeral,” he told me. A strange choice of words, or so I thought at the time.

20.

Approaching the dining hall, my toes and fingertips tingled with goodwill. So many people hugging hello and good-bye. Such a fever of affection. None of the girls remembered yet that they'd have coursework beginning the very next day, long afternoons with mimeographed articles and eight
A.M
. classes to pull themselves out of bed for. They saw only the intermezzo: timing things just right to hand off notes in the hall between Geometry and European History II; the late nights of
punch-drunk study parties that made seven-thirty alarm clocks so impossible. Spying a cute boy in town and pretending to have business the same direction he was strolling, coming up with terrible excuses to walk past the public high school or the arcade—or, if their tastes ran a bit more to silver, past the Eagles Club. All summer the campus had felt empty and bleak, but now it was home again.

As I picked up my tray, one of the cooks spotted me from across the room and gestured furiously. John O'Brien and I often stayed to chat with the ladies over coffee, so I knew them all by name. This was Hilda, and running up behind her was a younger worker named Nadine. I waved back and flashed them a smile. Just then, someone knocked into my left elbow, sending my tray skittering onto the floor. “Oh!—” I said, as a group of students pushed ahead of me towards the entr
é
e line. They didn't look my direction, just tossed their hair and kept on chatting—something about wanting to avoid the leftovers, which didn't make sense, since this was Welcome Day. I assumed they hadn't seen me, and grabbed a new tray, sliding behind the threesome and grabbing a plate of stroganoff on a fresh bed of noodles. Hilda shouldered her way through the hungry crowd and ran over to me. She grabbed my elbow and steered me away from the line, picking up a piece of strawberry rhubarb (
New flavor!
was still all I thought) on the way to a table in the far corner of the hall.

“Why are you here?” she hissed.

“Lunch?” The confusion must've shown on my face, though a dim glimmer of awareness was starting to break through. All around the room, groups of students and even a few parents were taking peeks at me from the corners of their eyes.

“But not
now
,” Hilda said. “The vultures are out.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” I tucked a napkin—cloth, for today only—onto my lap and took a bite of pie. As a graduate I felt quite adult, and had decided I was allowed to eat dessert first if I wanted. “Who's a vulture?”

“Hmm,” said Hilda. She watched me eat the pie, my face growing pinker with each mouthful.
Leftovers
, the girls to the right of us whispered.
So sad. So pathetic. It's putting me off my appetite.
I finished the
pie and turned to my proper lunch, but before I could make much headway an entire table of third-years walked up and clattered their trays down next to me, a few scrapings left on each plate. My cheeks were now quite red and hot.

“The kitchen's right there,” I said. The bus tubs, where you were supposed to place your dishes for washing, were still almost empty.

“Ohhhhh.” One of the girls, who I thought was named Kay, stopped and looked over her shoulder at me. “We knoooooow, but we just thought you were looking for scraps.” She smiled, her eyebrows aloft with innocence. “We wanted to help!”

I looked down at my food, and then over to Hilda. Her face was stern and set.

“Come on, you ninnies,” she said. “Do your own dirty work.”

Kay smiled wider, coming around to retrieve her tray. Her hair was yellow and tied back in a braid, which she flipped over her shoulder like a mink.

“You know,” she said, “we thought we already did.”

Hilda and I watched each girl flounce up and remove her tray, scraping the extra food carefully into a trashcan before placing their plates in the tubs. They
tsk
ed about the waste, but we didn't make another sound until all of them were done and gone. It was only then I realized they'd taken my tray, too. My eyes stung, but I blinked and kept my gaze steady.

“You know, Nadine used to be a Donne Girl.” Hilda spoke with a casual air, as though the idea had popped into her head for no reason. She looked at Nadine, who was back in the kitchen, then nodded at me. “Scholarship, like you. Her people are from Appalachia.”

“Really.” I didn't know where Appalachia was, but I could guess its character. Barren. Blighted. Or anyway nothing like the glittering towns that gave birth to Kays and Margarets. Farm horses instead of dressage. Oatmeal by necessity instead of for improved digestion.

“Mmmhmm. She liked art history. Still does, as a matter of fact. Sometimes goes into the library museum after hours to look at the prints. But anyway,” Hilda swatted aside the idea of the school's prize archival collection, “when she was done with her studies, she didn't have much in the
way of options. Go home to her momma. Try and find some work. She always used to cook for her cousins, and that was how she ended up staying here.”

We both watched Nadine in the kitchen for a moment, humming to herself as she dropped plate after plate into a sink of soapy water. Something must've told her she was being observed—a tickle behind the ear, or a twitch at the base of the spine, goose over the grave—because she looked up all of a sudden and caught my eye. Her expression was hard to read.

“Things can go ugly fast,” Hilda mused. “People can be ugly.” I thought she might say more, but she didn't. Just put a hand on my shoulder before standing up and retying her apron, then disappeared back through the kitchen's swinging door to help Nadine finish up the wash.

21.

Thank god Margaret wasn't there amidst the vultures—she'd never see me this way, through the eyes of these girls. As far as she knew I'd picked up my bag and left town at the same time as the rest of our classmates, landing days later in a whole new life. She and I had discussed our post-graduation plans just once, and she accepted my vague answers with disinterested poise, perhaps filling in the details for herself. That's what I hoped now. Her expectations of me naturally weren't too high, but maybe she pictured me doing something secretarial. Not in New York, but maybe Pittsburgh or Detroit—big, if not the biggest. Not the finest, but still fine. I knew she planned to spend the summer on Cape Cod helping her mother decorate their new beach house before heading to Sarah Lawrence in the fall. My name would be disappearing from her memory by now, reduced to a faint buzz in the back of her brain. But at least the buzz would be a pleasant one.
Oh, you
, she'd think. And then she'd turn to the next topic. Something with a little more zip.