Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (9 page)

 

Zoya

22.

Dear reader, this cabin is too quiet. That was never a complaint I thought I'd level, but here I am: no plant misters hissing on, no dehumidifier humming by the cacti, causing the tarpaulins to shift. Just a quiet room and the scratch of my pen, while outside the wind occasionally has the good grace to whistle through the pines. If I sit very still I can catch the breath of mice under the floorboards, or the crinkling footsteps of birds in the eaves. And I can remember a time when I'd have killed for this kind of peace. Back then, when I thought I was drowning in sounds.

Have you, has anyone else, ever been driven mad by the squeak of saddle shoes? What about the swish of hair being rearranged? Fingers combing out a knot, then dragging the strands back into place, to be set by a ribbon or clip. It sounds petty, I know, but what you have to understand is that these noises were also harbingers for me of greater unpleasantness oncoming. And they were omnipresent. I might walk into a hallway and hear six girls running to beat the bell, their shoes all squealing against the tile. (One or two would bash into me, if at all possible, though over the years I got better at dodging.) Or I'd duck into the cafeteria for an afternoon cup of coffee and hear sixteen, seventeen braids being redone. Nine buns being pinned. The locks of twenty heads brushed out next to the salad bar. There was a kind of music to it, which I occasionally allowed myself to enjoy: such rich youth, the fat of so much success in the shifting of hair and the snap of well-bleached bobby socks. I sometimes watched
the waves of young women—pale or sunburned, auburn or blonde, round or rail-thin—voluminate over the campus lawns and felt a tug. Perhaps nostalgia? Or something more. But these tender moments only made the rest of the time more unbearable.

As my first year at the greenhouse wore on I curtailed my visits to Marie's caf
é
. They made me too sad. I remembered dragging in my schoolbooks, working to diminish my accent and build up my classroom bluster—and couldn't bring myself to walk through the door. It was as if I feared seeing my past self at a table, and having to face the disappointment in her eyes. Sometimes Marie waved to me from behind the counter when I walked by, but over time the gesture grew more confused, until at last it stopped.

Instead, I worked. I dug, aerated, primped, and pruned. I babied my seedlings, and sometimes when no one was looking I gave them little kisses. You have to be gentle with a young plant, when even the tenderest touch can knock it asunder or snap its weak spine. But I'm convinced they can feel love.

Girls streamed through the school, washing up and down its many shores giving me pinches or whispering nasty words. Often I felt the flash of their flesh on my flesh, the exquisite bloom of a bruise, and it got to the point where my heart quickened any time I heard a footstep. With reason. Once, I found myself alone in a corner with a fourth-year named Leah, uncertain how it had come to pass. She moved closer and closer, telling me terrible things about myself until her mouth was on my ear, her hand around my waist. One leg twined between my legs to hold me in place as she petted my hair and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was a beggar, a puppet, a ghost. All this was bearable only because I was able to consider the plants my protectorate. The greenhouse a kingdom with me standing guard. Kay and her friends stayed away, most of the time—even Leah cornered me on neutral ground, in the empty student union—and that was something to be proud of, no matter how many lips hissed against my neck.

That year, I also began making more trips to Maple Hill's small bookstore. During my schooling, I hadn't often read for pleasure—the
bookstore carried only English-language texts, and besides costing too much money these struck me as a waste of leisure time. Now I found, to my delight, that reading came easy. Some language switch had flipped in my brain; I dreamed in English, I spoke it constantly, I corresponded in English with the phone company and various seed distributors. John invited me over for dinner with him and his wife, Siobhan, and we laughed through the night, even playing a board game now that I was confident enough to understand the instructions. Although I'd always enjoyed strolling through the aisles of Sugar Books, smelling the paper and running my thumb over cover cloth, life took on a new tone of satisfaction along with my ability to pick up a volume and skim a few lines before deciding whether or not to buy.

As you might expect, I gravitated especially to Russian writers, for the flavor of home. But none satisfied me half so much as Leo Orlov. He was like nothing else—impressionistic, yet voluptuous in his images. His work unfathomable yet steeped in the human and mundane. Perhaps what I liked best was how
strange
he was; I didn't know the term “science fiction,” and even if I had, I'm not sure that's what I would have called him. (Of course this is a matter of much argument these days, with literary gatekeepers urgent to hold on to him and space/time aficionados praising his stories with nothing short of militant ecstasy.) But I knew that his work would take me on unbelievable journeys, and that was all I wanted. The comfort of a bolt-hole. A doorway appearing, cut into the very air.

You'll probably remember him from his first true sensation,
Felice
, the one in which a girl becomes a bird and forms a new army of starlings and crows to get her revenge on the men who betrayed her. But I knew him long before that. There was a small society of us, almost all expatriates, who started with his journal stories published in France and kept on through
Knife, Knave
and
Impresario
and
Sun Sort
. We were all a bit churlish about
Felice
, not because we found it less than brilliant, but because it let so many new readers suddenly reach out and claim our Orlov for their own. On the other hand, the book that broke him fully into my heart—that ran him, hot liquid, all through my blood—was a short novel called
Rothschild
, which not many people have read even now. I can't
understand why, but of course this makes it all the more personal and delicious.

Rothschild
showed up at Sugar Books in late winter, after an initial thaw had given way to the year's final deep freeze. I'd been spending nights in the greenhouse, tucking towels around the seams in the windows and readjusting the vents as needed. Suffice it to say, I got little sleep. Once the Donne girls figured out what I was doing, they threw snowballs at the windowpanes on their way home from midnight study sessions, sometimes knocking at the door and running away, leaving poppets on the step with pins stuck in their eyes. God knows where they found the time to make poppets.

The days were bleary with exhaustion, and as one such afternoon smeared over into evening I walked to the bookstore, hoping to cheer myself up. I'd been in recently, and didn't really think there'd be much new stock, but it was all I could think of. Indeed, the New Arrivals shelf was sparse: just a small shipment of obscure philosophical texts and an unsealed box addressed to a publisher sitting at the foot of the checkout counter. The register girl saw me trying to peer inside.

“Oh, we're sending those back,” she said. “They packed too many by mistake.”

“Can I look?” Everything else was picked through, and I was too tired to walk through the aisles and try to get excited about some romance or mystery I'd passed over several times before. The counter girl shrugged.

“Knock yourself out. Just try not to muss them up too much or the publisher won't take 'em.”

I pulled the cardboard edges out from where they'd been tucked underneath one another, and they gave a squeak—then I gave a yelp. “Is this a new Orlov?”

“Who?”

“Leo Orlov. He's a writer?”

“I figured.” The register girl leaned over the counter for a better look. “Hmm. Search me. I guess it's new. We didn't think we could sell that many books by a guy no one has heard of.”

“I have.”

“Well that makes one.”

Lev already lived in New York then, but he was still obscure in America. I pulled a copy out of the box and looked regretfully at the rest. No way I could buy all of them, and anyway what would I do with them if I did? The book seemed to shiver in my hand, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. I was reluctant to hand it over to the register girl even long enough to let her wrap it.

“What's it about?” she asked.

“I don't know yet. I have to read it.”

“You're not even going to check before you buy it?” She wrote out a receipt for me and placed everything in a brown paper bag. “That's devotion. Not a lot of readers like you out there anymore.”

“I know,” I said. Though I knew nothing of the kind, the idea made me proud.

“Let me know how you like it,” the girl called out as I left the store. “Maybe if it's good I can convince the owner to re-order them.”

I had planned to walk to the store for a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese, but I decided that Orlov trumped my aversion to the cafeteria. I'd slip in late and hope that Hilda or Nadine would be there and let me eat with them in the kitchen. A few students would be sure to see me, and no one would applaud me for eating with the cooks, but what did I care?
Orlov
, I chanted to myself.
Orlov
,
Orlov
,
Orlov.
When I reached the edge of campus I broke into a run, clutching the paper bag in my hand. Buildings blurred by, along with trees and faces. I was almost at the dorm. I was almost free. Most likely it was this excitement that kept me from noticing Kay's foot stuck out in front of me—a rookie move, really; she tried it every time we crossed paths—and I tripped over her toe, skidding to the ground.

“Whoops!” A yellow braid loomed above me, the rest of her hair covered up with a knit cap. “Must've hit a patch of ice. Want a hand?”

My knees were skinned, a hole scraped into the left leg of my pants. Most likely they would've worn through soon anyway, with me on my hands and knees at all hours checking heaters and watering hard-to-reach plants. But it wasn't as though I could easily replace them; a book was one thing, but proper clothes were another. Knowing I'd probably
have to make a visit to the charity shop, I batted Kay aside with stinging palms.

“Get away from me.”

“Temper, temper. And here I was just trying to help.”

I pushed myself up, grabbing the book from where it had skittered across the paved path and shoving it back into the bag. “You help like a hole in the head, Kay.” Spending time with John O'Brien had improved my idiomatic language immensely.

“Such a bitter leftover,” she told me. “Someone should really put you out with the trash.”

“Well, someone should really teach you some manners.”

“What did you say?” Kay smiled, her eyes cool. I almost never parried her attacks. “Say it again.”

She was in my way. I was so close—my bed, unslept-in for days, was half a minute's walk from where we stood. In my hands I crumpled the Orlov bag, its paper already colored with a streak of blood. I stepped towards Kay and took a breath.

“I said you were a little bitch.”

The silence that followed was a beautiful thing. I suppose I can savor, here in this lonesome cottage, the similarity between that moment and this one. For once, Kay was at a loss for words—indeed, in her surprise, she seemed unable to move at all. It wouldn't last long, I knew, and taking advantage of the momentary calm, I walked around her into the dorm, locking the door to my room behind me.

23.

I can still recite by memory the description on the back of the book:

Rothschild
: a new novel from the critically acclaimed foreign writer Leo Orlov. PICTURE yourself on a world far away, but not so different from our own. IMAGINE a terrible illness overtaking every woman and girl, be she Missy or Mrs., Ooh-la-la or
Oh-no-thanks. First, a green line winds up her leg—yikes! Is it a varicose vein, or something more sinister? Ladies don't take any chances, slicing the new arrivals off with razors and nail scissors, burning them off with cigarette lighters. But no matter what they do, the illness continues, the growths return, and women become slaves to it—until one brave girl decides to take an unlikely stand.

It was rare for me to read the jacket copy of an Orlov book—I preferred to let the story wash over me, in all its twists and thrills. Plus, whoever wrote the jacket descriptions was a dunce. Not once, until after the success of
Felice
, did the description come close to reflecting what the novel contained. The basic details of the plot were there, but none of the depth, almost as if the publishing house didn't want people to realize what they had until it was too late.

But in the case of
Rothschild,
for some reason, I skimmed the summary and then set the book down with shaking hands. There was a sink in my room—a luxury the rest of the dorms did not contain, because my room was really intended for floor monitors and other adult visitors. I turned the water on, hot, and cleaned the gravel out of my palms, snipping away bits of dead skin and wrapping my wounds in clean white bandages. After inspecting my pants, I decided they might still be mended, and set them aside in a laundry basket before dabbing my knee with iodine. Then, with a shuddering sigh, I sat down on my bed wearing nothing but my camisole and underwear.

I began to read. The night was predicted to be another cold one, and eventually I'd have to go out to the greenhouse to take up my watch. I could bring a flashlight and continue on with the book from there, but the beam would draw more girls to the glass, and I was worried an icy snowball might eventually smash through a window.
Just an hour or so
, I told myself. If I didn't eat dinner, the time wouldn't matter much.
Just a few more pages. Just a chapter. Or two
.

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