Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (15 page)


An Oral History of Vera Orlov, née Volkov, cont'd

Recorded by the Maple Hill Police Department


“Yes, it's absolutely uncommon for one of my authors to have a wife so involved in the process. Most of them keep their family life well out of it—distracts from the artistic method, you see. Not easy to dip into the well of inspiration when there's a toddler running around your feet, or a woman asking for pocket money so she can pick up milk at the corner store. But Vera's not that type of woman.

“Yes, of course I call her Vera. We're on excellent terms. She was the one who initially contacted me and said they were interested in bringing Lev's books to American audiences. Of course I was excited as soon as I saw the first translated manuscript for
Knife, Knave
. His French editor's a friend of mine, so I'd been hearing good things, but you see, gossip is no substitute for the feeling of holding a bit of genius in your hands, and responding to it in your own individual way. That's something people don't understand about the editorial process, I think: how much of it's intuitive, almost mystical. Sometimes you can tell, intellectually, that you're reading a great piece of writing, and still not want to come near it with a ten-foot pole.

“Anyway, no, I haven't spoken to her in several months. Lev had a big plan that he'd sworn me to secrecy on—exciting, but really hush-hush, you know writers. They always think someone's going to steal their ideas. It's not uncommon for the pair of them to go dark when he's working on something. When she has something to say, she'll say it. And of course, I'll let you know, if that would be helpful.”


Notes indicate Mr. Horne was polite overall, but spoke in a rather tart manner and hurried the officers out after making his statement, claiming business obligations. Officers were then stopped by an associate of Mr. Horne's down the hall, one James Tipton.


“I'm not supposed to say this, but I really despise her. Nothing is ever good enough for that woman. And my god, can she not take a compliment.”


“She tried to up-sell me on the price for a story in my own magazine. [
] Called me up and said, ‘I know you pay twenty-five dollars for an ordinary piece of fiction, but wouldn't you pay more if someone could guarantee you were buying an early work of brilliance?' Gave her husband forty, just on moxie. Can't say she was wrong, either—we still get notices about that story. It has shades of
in it, like an artist's sketch before they make a painting, see? That's really the only time I ever talked to her, though. What exactly are you looking for?”




John came into the greenhouse one morning in spring, holding a coffee for me.

“Knock, knock.” He rapped his knuckles on my head and handed me the cup.

“Well, look at you,” I said. “Almost polite. So close.”

He shrugged, but couldn't mask his pleasure at the compliment. We'd seen less of one another lately, and I knew John worried he'd done something wrong. But what could I say to ease his mind? Every afternoon I raced home and waited for Lev in the kitchen with a pot of tea, shedding clothes on the way to the table. Or else found a note in my satchel that named just a time and a place—the town library, the local park, by the rhododendrons—where I was to arrive alone, and wait. Sometimes I waited for close to an hour, until the loneliness was overwhelming, the quiet screaming in my ears and telling me to
Get out, get out.
But before I could, I'd feel a hand on my shoulder, pressing me gently to some half-secret place and then reaching up under my skirt, pulling aside my underwear. The rule being, I must never look around.

For years, John had been bothering me to make more friends, saying there were better things for a young lady to do than spend her Friday nights playing board games with a middle-aged man and his wife. A fine sentiment, certainly. But now that I was occupied, he didn't seem to like it. I suppose he thought I'd meet some girls in town, or bother Nadine into
the occasional movie. Something we could talk about after. (Dear John, I realize I've been out of touch, but a man's been investigating my hip bones with his teeth.)

“There's a flower show happening, you know.” He was examining the banana tree, pinching a still-green fruit between thumb and forefinger. “Couple of towns over. We should go and see if there's anything worth picking up.”

“Alright,” I said. “That sounds fun.”


“Sure. I'll make a thermos of hot chocolate.”

John laughed. “It's seventy degrees outside.”

“At home, my grandmother always said you should drink hot things when it's hot and cold things when it's cold, so your inside temperature doesn't get confused and conflict with the air.”


I nodded, and knocked his hand away from the tree. I wasn't thinking, really. It was a nice day, the warm air after the final cold snap that turns people cheerful and goofy. Anyway, she did say that.

“That might be the first time you ever mentioned your family to me,” John said. I froze for a moment, but managed to make it look like I was just inspecting the bruise he'd left on the banana leaf.

“Well, I only knew her when I was really young.”

“What about your parents? I mean, I know the story: orphan boat.” He winced. “But you must've had some time together with them.”

My parents, who protected me and ferried me between country and town. They were poor, but hard workers. Isn't that what people said? Papa, with his dark beard,
with her hair tied back. The last time I saw my mother, she was begging me to stay with her, even though we could hear the boots of agents walking door to door, looking for dissidents. She held me back by the arm, by my dress, by my hair, telling me to be quiet and save us. But I still believed in the revolution, then.

“Maybe,” I said, “there's a reason I don't talk about it.”

John held up his hands in surrender.

“I'll pull around the truck,” he said.


My mother used to take me to the market to pretend we were looking for dressmaking cloth, though in fact we got all of my clothes second-hand, and she wasn't adept enough to take in sewing work; her fingers, thick and callused from digging, made it hard for her to stitch with any precision. Still, for some reason we both enjoyed walking past the stands of pickled cabbage and the large cages full of watermelon, ending up among the rolls of fabric that hung from wagons and got propped up in stalls. Many old
lay out crocheting there, which I was not allowed to touch. Lacework, wool work. My mother was on a perpetual hunt for cloth the deepest shade of blue.

“Probably have to look at silks,” she'd say. “Because of the way the cloth takes the color. Looks too black on cotton. What we want is the night sky before it's really night, see?” Together we stretched out bolt after bolt, sometimes asking for a tiny swatch to take home and “think about,” which we usually received, even though the shopkeepers knew we'd never buy. My mother kept these swatches sewn together in a tiny booklet, and if you flipped through you could start to see the blue she was imagining, with elements of darkness and elements of flash and glow.

The market, chaotic and jumbled as the best of them are, was also a good place to find back-alley action if you knew where to look. You might see, for instance, people trading secrets, people handing off illegal goods or evading tariffs, a whispered conversation followed by a man reaching into a pile of potatoes and pulling out a bottle of scotch. Illicit texts sewn into the spines of Party histories, photographic proof of murders tucked into the pocket of a tailored coat. American cigarettes and chocolate bars hidden beneath piles of beads. Often, old women stood on top of their quarry and spread their skirts out to protect it from prying eyes. The secret police knew about this, of course, but mostly let things be. They had to get candy for their sweethearts too, after all.

Sometimes, though, the air changed. We'd walk up for a closer look at a pile of apples and see a man shoulder through the crowd pushing a clip
into his gun. My mother would grab me by the back of my shirt and pull me close, out of danger; she had a way of disappearing into the background of a scene that I've never been able to replicate. Once we saw a whole building come down, the wall in front of us crumbling to its knees and catching a girl who'd been about to offer us a mouthful of cider. I swear in an instant my mother turned us both to smoke, that we floated above the rubble and I couldn't breathe, couldn't cry, as men kicked through the market's husk and shot survivors in the face so no one would be left to remember. Some of these men we'd seen before, laughing, ruffling the same girl's hair. But this was also my mother's wisdom: she knew that even the nicest person could turn a nastier cheek.

My father had disappeared the year before, and we would never know where. Though we could guess. (A memory: One day I came home from school and he was missing, his absence somehow a presence in the rooms. My mother sat at the kitchen table with a lock of hair between her lips, which she wouldn't move to brush aside. She sucked on her hair and I crept to the bed I made each evening on our sofa to hide myself beneath the blanket.) Our house became more cramped in his absence, and watchful, though I would still not admit that the Party had done or could do wrong. So, I thought, she must be the one who was.

Before the agents reached our door I sprinted out to meet them, closing my mother in behind me. What happened to her when the men kicked their way into our home? I don't know. I didn't see. I imagine her flickering between forms, now the wooden grain of a chair, now the filament in a bulb. I imagine the agents hauling her up by the arms as she disappeared into the fabric of her dress, so it fell empty in their fingers. Perhaps she became the waxed thread in a cross-stitch, or the brass button on my father's shirt, which she'd kept and worn like a sweater. The stain on the rug from when I had the flu as a child and threw up before she could get me to the sink. My birthing blood. Any putrid element, mouse shit or exposed wire, which the men might overlook or drop with disgust. Maybe she escaped somehow, melting into that deep and glorious blue, which I hadn't known before was the color of despair at its most unutterable.

But even if she did manage to transform—into an elixir, a miracle—I know the men would've just barged in and soaked my mother up in sponges, then wrung her out on the floor of a prison so cold she froze. Into a puddle of ice. Into the purple body of a woman left for dead. Later I saw pictures of such bodies, printed in newspapers as evidence of the horrors of war. But who was I to judge people, to judge war, when I had run into the arms of my captors with a grateful cry at being rescued by the Party faithful? Later letting myself be smuggled out of the home for girls and onto a boat when I realized there was no fidelity except to life. No creed of truth, no heart that's home.

I'm beginning to change my mind about this, but it's taken an awfully long time.


The flower show was held in a big pavilion—a series of tents connected by muslin walkways, which was also used for state fair exhibitions and smelled of pigs and hay. John and I enjoyed the birds of paradise, each shaped like a Technicolor blade, and picked one up that was orange and magenta just to make the Donne girls squeal with glee. The local plants were mostly mundane, but several farmers had lugged in prize gourds from the previous fall, dried out and hollow but still impressive. When you held your ear up to the larger ones, they made a sound like the ocean, akin to a seashell. We ate popcorn cooked in a kettle and drank the chocolate I insisted on dragging around; too warm, perhaps, but delicious all the same.

“What about this?” John asked, looking at an Italian grapevine, which offered itself as low-maintenance fruit.

“I don't know,” I said. “What about a coffee bush?” We each popped a red coffee cherry into our mouths, and though I understood John's aversion after biting too hard and almost cracking a tooth on the bean, I thought it tasted sweet and good. We dragged a wagon behind us, filling
it up with flowers and shrubs, and John occasionally patted my shoulder, as if he were my proud old dad.

Near the end of the show, I saw a man and woman crouching around a yellow rosebush, holding hands. She was leaning into the flowers, sniffing each one as if they were telling different stories. The man was laughing, and picked up the pot with obvious pleasure, despite miming shock at the cost. A decoration, perhaps, for a new home. You saw couples like this often at the spring shows, looking to restock their gardens, and I don't know why these particular people made me catch my breath, but I stopped mid-step, leaning on a nearby table and pretending to inspect a very ordinary blueberry bush. John paused with me.

“Nice looking couple,” he said.

“Hmm?” I checked the price on the blueberry. Outrageous.

“Well, sure, isn't that what a girl wants?”

“Is it?” Was it? I realized I was no longer certain. Though they did make me want
The rose woman, as it happened, looked a bit like Margaret, five or ten years on. Same bouncy hair, same nose. She would make little Margarets and send them to nice schools too, outfitted with pressed wool skirts and a sense of exhaustion at the idea of dealing with the housekeeping staff. “It isn't that I don't like them,” Margaret had always said when required to ask maintenance to fix something, or beg a favor from the maids. “It's just that I'm so tired by everything I already have to do, it seems like, why should I have to do this?”

I understood her fatigue, now, because I felt it too. About—everything. Lev had become insistent that I was the only one who could rid us of Vera. That my hand must push her towards the cliff, even if she took herself over. It had to be me, and it had to be soon, because he was leaving in early summer to rescue a book he'd hidden years before in what was now the USSR. He'd secured help sneaking in from the U.S. military, having charmed a pilot into adding him to an overseas flight manifest by implying he'd model a character off the man in his next story, and he needed Vera to be gone before he got back. She would destroy the book, he was sure, and that was something he couldn't abide. The plan was so magnificently ill advised that I almost wondered if he'd dreamed it up as an excuse just
to get out of town—or I would have, that is, if he didn't speak with such moving tenderness about the book, which he really thought would save his life. It, and me. First thing he ever wrote, and (his words) the last woman he would ever love. He was aiming to depart sometime in June, which didn't give me much time to decide.

“When I have that book,” he said, “then I'm really free. But I need you to stay here and make sure things go on as planned. Have you talked to her? You'll have to talk to her. I think I've come up with a way.”

Men and women met; they married. I'd always thought that was important. Lev still spoke of his passion for his wife, her spectacular galactic beauty; before him, I'd had nothing, and if I lost him, things would go back to the way they'd been. The rose couple at the flower show tugged at some part of my heart, but when I followed Vera I felt a different pull. A tightening in me, a rumble of power. And I wondered: was that so bad?

“Let's go,” I said to John, who seemed, in spite of my best efforts, to see something unsettling behind my careful expression.

“Are you sure?”

“Things to do, people to see,” I said.

“Alright then.” One more time he frowned towards the man and wife, who were now looking at a young dogwood. “I guess it's up to you.”

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