Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (8 page)

I hurried back into the greenhouse, shutting the door behind me with a slam and leaning against it to catch my breath. John turned from the
length of sprinkler pipe he was fiddling with, and gave me an assessing look.

“That bad?”

“Why,” I asked, “didn't you tell me it would be like that?”

“I thought you knew.” He shrugged. “You lived here for two years. You didn't notice they were all stuck up?”

I went over to the table of seedlings and ran my finger along a green bean vine curling up a thin stake in its terra-cotta pot. The stake, piked deep. The vine, slowly strangling the pike. Yes, I knew the Donne girls were snobs, but I didn't realize they were cruel. I'd never worked for them before.
I don't know if I can do this
, I almost said, but my thoughts were interrupted by a honk from outside, and the rumbling of an engine, cut short. My exotics. I took a breath and tied the bandanna back around my neck for protection from the afternoon sun.

The next few hours passed quickly. We organized the plants not just by color but by region, creating biomes in each corner. One full of palms and banyans and birds of paradise, African iris and beehive ginger. One for the American southwest desert with ocotillo and aloe and agave, and even a small saguaro, which would cause me endless stress. For the southern belles we had orchids, honeysuckle, and a few tobacco plants—plus a Venus flytrap, which I'd assumed was from somewhere with deep jungles, but I learned was actually from North Carolina, and simply couldn't resist. I was reminded of childhood summers, when heat and effort erased the very hours from the clock. Spot-checking the sugar beet leaves for insect eggs, turning the soil, beginning the harvest, my mother handing out jugs of cold water with a hint of lemon and a breath of vodka to encourage the blur of minutes into days.

John and I ran around, wrangling both citrus and rhizome. While we worked I had no time to think, though I wouldn't realize this until later, and wouldn't learn to cultivate it as an escape for longer still. My body, though, must've felt the relief and grabbed hold of it. By the time everything was in place I was breathless—from exertion, yes, but even more so from excitement. Snobs or not, the students and parents would have no choice but to be bowled over by our display. As the sun fell low,
the greenhouse filled up with pink and orange light, burnishing the already rich colors and softening the edges of the leaves. I half expected to dissolve into the haze, leaving no trace behind but a pair of dirty shoes.

As the first visitors trickled in, drawn by the Welcome Day itinerary printed out for them by the school's planning committee, my expectations were more or less gratified. Mothers
ooh
ed and
aah
ed at the flowers, and fathers poked the moist soil with an air of gardeners' camaraderie. The girls looked bored, or calm and sly. But they kept their mouths shut, which was enough. I began to think we'd achieved a coup, John and I. We'd set the tone for a year of mute appreciation.

The girls came in waves according to class, freshmen and their eager shepherds first, seniors last. And it was only with the latter of these groups that the tide in the room began to change. The air grew stuffier. I noticed more touching of the plants: girls tweaking stems and leaving half-moons in the leaves with their fingernails. My polite coughs gained nothing, but neither did my overt displays of authority: whenever I asked someone to refrain from shredding the foliage, I was met with a blank and ruthless stare. “Me?” the girl would say. “I didn't even realize.” The greenhouse garden represented hundreds of hours of work, from research and selection to the careful setup of the past afternoon. But more than that, it was my livelihood. It was my life. Every plant, from the most familiar strawberry to the most outlandish vine, was a part of me. It was all I had. And they—who had so much more by comparison—knew it.

By the time we got down to the last few families, I was desperate. An entire ginger plant had been destroyed, and several roses had been snapped but left attached to their stems by a thread, beheadings as sadistic as they were incompetent. There would be an administrative inspection the next day, and it looked like I'd arranged the greenhouse by letting wild dogs run loose from door to door. I saw Kay, who'd hung around long past the rest of her classmates, say something to a fourth-year named Susan, who had occasionally quizzed Margaret in French. Susan nudged a planter with her toe, just a little, then just a little more, until it tipped over and spilled the barbed orbs of a teddy bear cholla across the floor. “Oops,” she said.

I'd had enough. Paying no attention to John's quiet hand motion—a finger run, knifelike, along his neck—I walked over to Susan and Kay.

“What do you think you're doing?”

“Oooh,” said Kay. “We're admiring all the beautiful work.”

I turned to Susan. “And what about you? You know me. I'm friends with Margaret.”

She looked at me with an expression approaching pity. “No you're not,” she said, and shoved the spilled planter some more with her shoe, rubbing circles in the dirt. “You knew her, but that's not the same. Even you don't think it is.” Kay giggled, and Susan rolled her eyes, then grabbed Kay's hand and pulled her towards the exit. I just watched. Kay's braid swishing back and forth across her spine, Susan walking with a graceful heel-toe twitch. I could feel the plants in the greenhouse throbbing, or maybe that was my own head. I thought of the ocean I had crossed, the beet field I'd pulled weeds in as a child while Susan and Kay drank glass after glass of sugared fruit juice and probably lounged by the side of a pool. They both had that look: expensive powder over a residual tan.

When they were gone, John told me, “Don't worry. We'll put it right.” And indeed we worked into the night, restoring tilted plants and trimming back ragged edges until the greenhouse looked spic and span, ready for the early inspection. The next day, the administrators would be impressed, winking at me and hinting of a long and prosperous career. But that night I went to bed exhausted and spent, an orphan girl with dirt under her fingernails, too afraid to use the communal bathroom shower after creeping back into the dorm. An orphan girl hollow with the knowledge that she still had no home after all these years.

 

Lev

23 June 1931

Airmail via [Redacted]

Where did I leave off before, Vera? Drunk on my first sight of you, I expect. Shivering in my shoes as you ran your fingertip over the rim of your wineglass at that doomed party in Leningrad, making it hum. We discussed literary ambition—“The key,” you said, “is to see possibilities in the world that no one else has the bravery to face”—and I described my book to you. The same precious first I search for now, then the only. You said the ideas held promise, though I remember the look of mild displeasure on your face. Probably the very look you're wearing as you read this letter.

But still. That night. With each breath you drew closer to me, until I was inhaling almost directly from your mouth, my Lev-ly proboscis ever approaching your lovely lips. I asked if I could take you on a walk along the canal, and you said yes, then looked around for your father—not to ask him, but to be sure he wouldn't see. You were seventeen. I was twenty-three. At the doorway a towering butler blocked our path, but I distracted him with a cigarette, which he pinched from me with two thick fingers and sniffed in a vaguely obscene manner.
God bless all obscenity
, was my opinion. I wanted to toss you into a dark corner and tear you apart with kisses, but didn't dare. I suspected even then that you could swallow me
whole without a second thought and go on your way, little Lev swimming around, hopeless in your belly. Yes, I was afraid of you, Vera. I was exhilarated. Outside you strode over a bridge, on the top of a wall, just high enough that I could see a hint of thigh beneath your uplifted skirt, and when I reached for your hand you gave me just the tips of your fingers, which I sucked. They tasted sweet.

“Naughty boy.” You used your dress train to sock me on the cheek, and then climbed carefully back down.

“I have a page,” I offered.

“A page?”

“Just one, from the manuscript. It's in my pocket.” I'd been considering this ever since we left the party—it seemed dangerous, like an early proposal. We'd been speaking for only an hour, and already I knew that to give you any piece of my literary efforts would be to embark on a path from which, for good or ill, there'd be no return. But how could I resist the draw of your intelligent eyes, the flick of your clever fingers? “I could let you have a look.”

“Alright.” You stopped, and hopped back onto the wall to sit. Suddenly I was nervous. Sweat broke on my forehead, despite the chill of the night. Whereas you hadn't a care in the world; you swung your legs and whistled. Still wearing your black mask. “Well?”

The paper was folded into quarters, tucked in the inner pocket of my tailcoat right above my heart. I'd written it earlier in the day, smoking copiously. At that time in my life I had little else to do but sit at my desk and flick ash out the window onto the heads of passersby while I scribbled down my ideas, but even if I'd had teaching duties or—better still—a plan of escape, I was too intoxicated with the work to leave it for longer than a few hours. I'd gotten into the habit of carrying my latest pages around so I could reread them, or even just touch them to remind myself they were real—a sensation half verbal, half autoerotic. I knew no one else thought the way that I did, the way that I do. No one else would see our country for what it was: a land bearing thousands of counterfeit kings, with the legitimate ruler lost among them, having forgotten himself. That was my story. Amnesia, dislocation, masquerade. Peasant kings stealing from the
rich before turning on one another, heads beaten in with wooden scepters. I handed you a page thick with script, hoping you wouldn't see my fingers shake.

You read. I watched, pacing back and forth in a wide arc, since the wall made it impossible to fully circumnavigate you. I could tell by looking at your eyes that you went through the whole thing twice, and could also see when you stopped and lost yourself in quiet thought. At last you turned to me. Your breath coming out as small puffs of cloud.

“Perhaps,” you said.

“Perhaps?”

“Perhaps.” You refolded the paper and held it up between middle finger and fore. “May I keep this?” Though it lasted only a second, you must've seen the hesitation in my face. “I see.” You smiled a grim smile and handed back the page.

“What do you mean
perhaps
?” I was unable to stop myself from asking. I could feel something dark and meaningful spinning inside your chest, Vera. My polestar, my pet, my set of teeth.

“You can be great,” you said in reply. “Perhaps.”

At this you jumped down and took off down the street, your dress dragging on the ground and your hands folded in front of your chest for warmth, though it looked like benediction. I didn't know then the calculations you were making, considering not just you and me but your own place in history, guiding my hand. You must've felt your hold was tenuous. I scampered behind you, having restored my writing to its proper place, but just as I caught up you stopped and stamped your foot.

“What?” I asked. Panting, heartsick, hands on knees.

“It's ridiculous that I should be leaving tomorrow. Tomorrow! This idiotic country.” Naturally I agreed. You and your father were scheduled to depart for the west the next morning in a trap pulled by a single skinny Vyatka mare, catching the train in a small-town station outside the city. I was still stuck at the Herzen Institute off Nevski Prospect, and hadn't yet put together the money to flee. When my parents were still wealthy (and, of course, alive), my role as a university student and tutor had carried a bit of chic. But now the family money was frittered away in land grants to
the government of thugs, and the school was a shell of what it had been. Every course of study was restricted to the narrow regime-approved areas of focus: Death of the Individual; the Trigonometry of the Motherland; Comrades, Computations, Combinatorics. I felt daily more like a wastrel.

You said, “I will it not to be so,” and snapped your fingers. When nothing happened, you repeated yourself more emphatically: “I will it!” Lifting your hands up towards the heavens as if to pull down God himself for a chat. And then. Do you remember? A dove fluttered into your waiting palms, cream white and still quite ruffled from his descent. It was as if a lump of snow had gotten confused and manifested; we looked up to see if we could find the strange cloud it had come from, or indeed the chagrined deity who had dropped this marvel on us. Instead there was a rather fat man on a balcony looking frantic and gesturing in our direction while a red-cheeked auntie blew her nose and shook out her handkerchief by his side. You pulled the dove close to your face and looked into its beady eyes. It cooed. You looked. It cooed again. And all at once you threw your arms skyward and the dove flew up, back to its corpulent and inattentive master. Who knows what kind of menagerie he had in there—he caught the bird in one hand like a tennis ball.

Vera, it was torture for me to let you go without me, but what choice did I have? You were safe in Paris, if not quite secure. And for my part, I spun into a tizzy of activity, writing, writing every hour—except when I had a letter from you. Soon enough I completed my manuscript, and tore back through it page by page. When I was satisfied I copied it out for you, and sent it to your father's place in a brown paper package, wrapped thricewise and hidden inside a hollowed-out copy of an early Party history book. Around this time there was an increase in search and seizure for all those leaving the city to avoid counterproductive ideas moving across the border, and with my own departure plans on the brink of readiness I knew I couldn't expect to get away with my book in hand. (You'll remember the hectic nature of my final escape plans, fraught until the moment I realized that, in my regimen of constant drafting and revision, I'd saved the last few rubles I needed for bribes by forgetting to eat.) So I tied the original manuscript with twine, shut it up in the most airtight box I could find,
and buried it at the end of a trolleybus line. You were to be the safeguard of my future—as indeed you'll insist you have been, if not in quite the way I initially imagined.

Some weeks of anguish followed, but at last I snuck out of Leningrad on a transport train, pretending to be a mute priest from Lithuania on my way to give counsel to the archbishop of Rome. You met me at the Gare du Nord in a skirt that brushed against your calves. I remember you'd gotten slenderer. Just a quarter inch lost around the waist, but I mourned every molecule. Right there, standing by the man selling crepes from a cart, smelling of burnt batter and hungry civilians, I took you in my arms and slipped the blouse off of your shoulder, biting you and leaving a mark with my teeth. You looked at me in much the way you'd looked at that daring Russian dove, and for a moment I was afraid you'd release me too. Into whose custody, Vera? Instead, you straightened your clothes and took my hand and said, “Well, I think we'd better get married.”

It would be more than a week before I learned you'd burned my manuscript, for my “own good and protection.” I didn't inquire about it sooner, as I was too busy proposing to you and proposing to you every hour, trying to make up for the fact that you had asked me first. Plus I trusted that the pages were safe in your charge—an idea you'd have anyway confirmed. Not quite acknowledging that your idea of safety was far broader than my own: that you thought safety for me and my words meant sometimes saving me from myself.

When I found out I might have screamed at you. I might have walked away. But by then we were quite officially engaged. Weren't we, Renka? And it was more than that. By then we were inextricably in love.

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