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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 1


written by

Mehi Loveski

Vasiliy started taking dancing lessons in November, which meant there was plenty of time till he’d be seeing Mom again. He always came to her place in August, when they both had their birthdays. There was an old bird cherry tree near her cottage and he liked to sit in its fragrant shadow, enjoying the last days of warm sunshine and idleness. With their birthdays just a week apart, there was an extra treat thrown in between – the Day of the Railway Worker, a big event in the community largely depending on the Trans-Siberian railway for sustenance. On that day there were festivities for both young and old: funfair amusements, amateur performances, chess tournaments, films, dancing. The latter, held in the park that lay in a semi-circle round the wooden building of the local Palace of Culture, was the main attraction for the older folk. Elderly couples went around in neat circles to the accompaniment of the local band while the younger public were getting loaded at the beer stalls in anticipation of the discotheque.

With his brother rarely visiting social gatherings, it was Vasiliy who accompanied Mom to the dance. He was a poor dancer, though, and only joined her for a tango, self-consciously shuffling his feet on the bumpy asphalt. As for the waltz, Mom’s favorite, it was usually another enthusiastic lady who relieved him, with just an occasional gentleman, light-headed with drink and the sudden attention of the female dancers, holding out his arm to invite her for a dance. During the waltz, Vasiliy went to join the noisy crowd at the beer stalls and watched the dancers with a glass in his hand. Afterwards they walked – arm in arm – home, Mom talking excitedly of how it all reminded her of her youth and how she wished the dance were held more often. It was on one such night that Vasiliy made himself a promise that next time he would surprise Mom by dancing a waltz with her.

The dancing lessons started in the evening and he took a leisurely walk from the office to the Dance School, glad he would be soon seeing Nadia, his dancing instructor. She was young and beautiful and he always felt a surge of excitement as he put his arm on her slender waist waiting for the dance to begin. His first lessons were a nightmare, though: after the first few movements his head started spinning and his feet stumbled helplessly on the smooth parquet. Still, thanks to Nadia’s patience and enthusiasm, he was making good progress and even received compliments from his colleagues at the New Year party.

That night he was coming home after a lesson, his first after the New Year holidays, remembering Nadia’s radiant smile and her lithe figure. The weather was freezing cold as was invariably the case in those parts at that time of the year. He was walking past a leaning Christmas tree in the schoolyard, a flock of sparrows busily pecking at the pool of icy vomit underneath, when his cell rang. His brother’s barely audible voice was strangely emotionless. Vasiliy stopped in the middle of the narrow slippery sidewalk, nearly dropping his cell, and stood blocking the way till somebody bumped into him. He apologized absently and looked around as if seeing the place for the first time. A scrawny dog with a bloated belly was whining by the door of an all-night café lit by rapidly turning neon lights. A man went out letting out a cloud of warm steamy air mixed with the smell of fried chicken and tobacco smoke. He drunkenly shooed the dog and disappeared into the darkness. Vasiliy opened the door with feeble hands and held it open for the shivering canine. The dog whined even more desperately but refused the invitation.

On the train he sipped vodka from the bottle he’d bought at the café, staring dully into the darkness outside, all the way to the station where, for the first time in years, nobody was meeting him. He took a taxi – too weary to walk to Mom’s place a few blocks away. At the door he was met by his brother who hugged him without saying a word. The familiar room was lit by a dozen candles, the stale air filled with their sweetish smell. Mom’s face, gaunt and strangely withered, wore an expression of pain and confusion as if in her last moment she had seen something unspeakably horrible. Her hands, coarse and gnarled before, had been transformed – by the mortician’s grim art – into two glassy appendages that lay, neatly tied together, on her breast, a cheap plastic crucifix between the dead fingers. He bent and clumsily kissed her cold forehead. In the shadows – barely visible - were faces of other mourners. After sitting by the coffin for some time, he went outside and lit a cigarette. The icy wind swept the deserted street. A familiar tune, played by an unsteady hand on the piano, was coming from the distance – one, two, three, one, two, three... Vasliliy looked up – the stars in the clear winter sky seemed to be going round in unison with the tune. A rough throbbing lump rose deep inside him and was thrusting upward to his parched, gasping, throat. He bent down and vomited into the snow.

Vasiliy returned home early in the morning, feeling exhausted and unclean after the endless ride in the cold filthy train. He took a quick shower and collapsed on the bed. In his fevered dream he was standing in the deserted park, surrounded by dark indistinct shapes. The wind was rustling dead leaves and litter at his feet. Suddenly one of the ghostly shapes by his side came alive and with a rasping noise started advancing on him. Vasiliy nearly cried out in fright but immediately the lights went on to reveal an old merry-go-round in slow motion. A squeaky child’s voice from the loudspeaker cut through the silence. With a start he saw Mom sitting awkwardly on a chipped alabaster swan. She gave him an embarrassed smile as the merry-go-round moved jerkily to the accompaniment of a children’s song. The grotesque alabaster figures solemnly paraded before him. All of a sudden the engine revved up and the shaky contraption went faster, Mom’s perplexed smile giving way to an expression of panic. Vasiliy ran and tried to catch hold of the railing round the platform but was hurled onto the ground. The merry-go-round was going at breakneck speed now, the lights flashing wildly, the music a high-pitched piercing shriek. He stood up but couldn’t see Mom – the spinning figures were changing shape, merging and re-merging till there was just one huge many-eyed monster sneering at him...

He woke up, drenched in sweat, with the late afternoon sun on his face. The kettle in the communal kitchen was whistling shrilly. After two cups of coffee he remembered that today was his “dancing night”. He reached for the phone to call and cancel the lesson but instead grabbed his fur coat and went out into the crisp evening air.

The warm, brightly lit hall of the Dancing School with a big Christmas tree in the middle was filled with smiling faces and music. He saw Nadia at once. “Happy Old New Year!”* she greeted him cheerfully. “Change into your dancing shoes – we have a ball tonight!” She was wearing a white gauze dress, her brown hair done in a Grecian style. –“You look wonderful! Just like... Natasha Rostov!” he said laughing happily despite himself. – “Oh, thank you, but I guess it’s going to be your first ball tonight! Will you waltz with me?” – “But...” he suddenly sobered. – “What?” she noticed his paleness and dark circles under the eyes. “Anything wrong, Vasiliy?” –“No, it’s just... a little unexpected.” – “Surprise, surprise!” She held out her hand and drew him to the dance floor where the first chords of a beautiful melancholy tune were being played. Scarcely had he embraced her slender supple figure and begun to waltz, than a sudden change came over him. He felt miraculously revived and

* The Old New Year or the Orthodox New Year, an informal traditional holiday in Russia, celebrated as the start of the New Year by the Julian calendar.

rejuvenated, his feet did their work swiftly and independently of himself. Never before had he done his pas with such ease and precision. “Surprise, indeed! You are dancing splendidly, Vasiliy!” Nadia cried, delighted. He didn’t say anything but continued to go round, forgetful of anything but the smooth hypnotic movement. As he went on, he saw admiration in Mom’s tear-filled eyes, her lips moving: “I love you... I’m so proud...” He was dancing with renewed passion now, oblivious of the dull throbbing in his head and the fluttering pulse. Suddenly the music skipped a few bars and went faster with deafening loudness. From afar came Nadia’s worried voice: “Oh God, what’s going on...?” Jolted out of his reverie, Vasiliy realized that for a few moments he had been dancing blindly. He opened his eyes. Some dancers, who had accelerated with the music, collided into each other and fell on the floor, unable to understand what had happened. Immediately the lights went out and everything – the music, the movement, the voices – stopped.

Vasiliy stood in the darkness, swaying like a drunk, blood pounding in his ears. His hands, still extended, held nothing. A faint scent of Nadia’s perfume, mixed with the smell of sweat and fir needles, lingered in the air. A strange chill crept over him. The darkness around seemed viscid, almost tangible, and Vasiliy felt as if he was being dissolved in it and sucked into some cold inhuman black hole. The sensation was terrifying and at the same time oddly comforting. To die, to sleep… He was on the verge of abandoning himself to the dreadful pull, when something stirred in his fading mind. His body began to tremble uncontrollably, shaking off the encroaching lethargy. One, two, three… One, two, three… Will you waltz with me? Suddenly a flicker of dim light pierced the blackness, and slowly, as if on a film being developed, he saw it come back: a face, a tear, a smile. “I love you, Mom,” he whispered, like a child waking from a bad dream – and the lights went on.

Mehi Loveski is a bi-lingual author from Russia born in the same year the words “beatnik” and “sputnik” came into being – in a village in the northern Ural, in the vicinity of the infamous concentration camp Nyroblag. His next destination was Siberia where Mehi finished school and then studied English and literature at university. After graduation he moved to Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) where he worked as a translator, travel agent, carpenter and finally as an English instructor at Ural Federal University. He now lives in Tyumen province (Western Siberia) with his wife, son and a dog. His essays and short stories have appeared in several online and print venues both in the USA and in Russia.

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