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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2017 - Vol. 14, Issue 4


written by

Diane G. Martin

As she carefully positioned the long, tubular key in the fortified metal door and turned, the frozen tears slid off her glove and hit the cement landing, once more water. Pushing open the second, wooden door, she stamped her feet and wiped them on a strip of green, spiky, fake grass. Her leg was bruised where she had fallen, but that wasn’t the cause of the tears, of course. Dragging the ice-encrusted shopping cart behind her, she entered the foyer of her apartment in a fog of moisture and misted glasses, locking and closing the front doors.
“Hello, anybody home?” she shouted in an over-bright, artificially high tone. “Thank God,” she murmured, allowing her unnatural smile to slacken. Lydia, her daughter, who was studying music in St. Petersburg, had moved to her own nearby apartment with her boyfriend after an incident with Georgy involving whirling dirty dishes. 

Furthermore, Volodya, the boyfriend, had rescued a quite malodorous rat from the institute where he studied, which he kept at home in a cage. The woman prided herself on her tolerance, but wasn’t sorry to see the rat go. The kids were on good terms with her, though, dropping by at random to use her washing machine, computer and often dine with her as long as Georgy was absent. Another reason for the humid tension pervading her home.

After divesting herself of outdoor clothes and thawing her hands and feet, the woman would unpack the groceries and start making dinner. Only cooking got her through these little tragedies. Except this one wasn’t so small. Her late-life marriage was clearly a disaster. Dark, handsome “Southerners” were supposed to be passionate, weren’t they? This Armenian, however, put his entire ardor into his writing. Romance and wooing had breathed their last with an ugly civil ceremony at the Soviet-style wedding palace, leaving cold practicality and a prickly double standard in their wake.

She had asked all the wrong questions during their year-long “courtship”. Instead of “Do you enjoy having guests?” and “Where would you place Tsvetaeva in 20 th century poetry?” she should have asked how he felt about the death penalty and watching television during meals.
Glancing at the living-room window, she noticed that snow had begun falling like small shreds of torn paper thrown up into the air, nature’s confetti, and wondered, ironically, what they were celebrating. Perhaps just winter itself. So much for the myth that it could be too cold to snow. The worn woman donned her warm, fleece-lined slippers and padded closer to the festive flurry just the other side of the radiator by her desk. She adored the pure, fantasy landscape of new white snow, before it was muddied by traffic and footsteps, just as she was sustained by it while walking her beloved granite-lined embankments to the theaters, reciting Russian poetry as she stepped on the beat, alone. Sometimes her daughter or a woman friend would meet her at one of the ornate theaters before a performance or concert, but usually it was a solitary pleasure. Before she could lose herself in the dancing, crystallized magic though, a newly typed page neatly covering her closed laptop caught her eye.

Georgy must have begun writing again, she thought, hopefully. He’d been so depressed lately that his only thought was flight. It began:

               When in Flux

We met when everything was in flux. It was autumn. I was battling the descent. For me, she was a safe harbor, perhaps not particularly strong, but significant. She helped me to destroy thoughts about the past. I realized that now I had to live for her. And she recognized that she was living for this idea, as well. Otherwise, autumn would have swallowed me up.  Now she is no longer beside me. Only in my memory. She fulfilled her mission. She’d been able to witness what she had accomplished. She saved me, fulfilling my wish to live for someone else.

This was what she had needed. A declaration of appreciation, at least, if not love as she understood it. Yes, his depression had begun in the fall. Of course, he hadn’t been able to discuss his true feelings in her open American way. Of course, writing came more naturally to him than speaking. She had misjudged him, failed fully to understand their cultural differences.  But if he felt this way, there was still time and space for their relationship, a foundation on which to build. The break-up wasn’t a foregone conclusion if he cared about her, understood her, and appreciated her efforts. This was his way of reaching out.

The print was now too blurry to read.  She blotted at her new cascade of tears as  Georgy came blustering in, She went to him with the precious, relationship-renewing document, kissed him on the cheek, held up the paper and said “Thank you,” in a soft, strangled voice. He frowned as he held the page in his icy, red fingers, finally registering comprehension. With a dismissive laugh, he handed it back. 

“Does that sound like me?”

The man dismissed her with a sarcastic sidelong glance. “Did you read the whole thing?”
“Well, no, you came in, but…”

He shook out his hat, his old fur shapka, splashing her and the pristine, white page without concern or apology. Then, nudging off his boots, he snatched the page and read aloud, mockingly:

I know that in the theater of life, everyone has his or her leading role. Only at the end is it possible to grasp it. Having played this role, the actor retires under an avalanche of applause, while afterwards, there are hundreds of wreaths at the cemetery. She’s been lucky; she has played her leading role her whole life. She played it for me. She was the strongest link in the chain linking me with this filthy world. There will never be another like her.

Georgy thrust the paper back at her, shaking his head. “The kids splitting up too? Lydia can move back into my room.”

Just then, Volodya knocked symbolically on the door, which had been left ajar amid the distraction and stepped over the threshold, head down, shoulders stooped, wrapped in his long yellow scarf like a huddled Little Prince. He didn’t own an overcoat. Retrieving the eulogy from her outstretched hand, he glanced from one to the other of them and mumbled a distressed, “Thank you. I, uh, used your printer. I won’t stay, I just came back to get this so that I can bury it with her.”

“With whom?” the woman gasped as the blood drained from her face and her heart hit the floor.
He gazed at her blankly, folding the paper. “With Ya-Ya, my rat, obviously.” Then he looked away, embarrassed that he might brim over with emotion. “She died last night.”

Diane G. Martin, Russian literature specialist and writer of poetry, fiction, memoir, and essays, has published fiction in New London Writers, Vine Leaves Literary Review,  poems in the  Willamette Review of the Liberal Arts, Portland Review of Art, Pentimento, Twisted Vine Leaves, The Examined Life, Wordgathering,  and a book of early poetry, as well as a children’s book in Moscow, Russia. Her photos have been exhibited in the US, Russia, and Italy, and will soon be published in Conclave . She has broadcast essays on Maine Public Radio, as well as participating in radio programs and documentaries in the US and Russia. She is currently writing an autobiography, among the usual pieces.

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