Springtime (Winter's Ghost)
“There are monsters, Slava,” she said, quietly. “They’re as real as you and me. But they’re not all bad. Some of them are little boys, just like you; only they don’t know it. If they knew, then they wouldn’t be monsters.”
The sound of Mother’s voice carried Éosláv’s attention to the balcony just behind the white curtains like bride’s veil lace, embroidered with flower shapes, leaf shapes, and ornate vines, as white as the sheer curtains themselves, and as meticulous as anything a grandmother’s needle might sew. Talk of monsters always threw him into a vague sense of restless abstraction, and now, his restive thoughts ambled out of the stuffy parlor and through the door to the little gray balcony with its wrought-iron railing. He dared not think too far beyond the rail; scary things were happening, down below and in the streets, and so his thoughts went only as far as the balcony itself, and the wilted asters in dingy, clay pots. The balcony was always a drab and dead place in the cold, gray months of winter, and the wet, gray months of spring. But in the warmer times, and on lazy summer mornings, the balcony was a magical riot of flower colors and buzzing, scuttling insects. Earwigs always came, and talked to him, always kept him company, sometimes telling him stories, he imagined, about owls and trees, and—once—the strange history of a man named Ürsómir and his companion named Shadow.
There wasn’t much interest in dead asters, sprouting from lumps of winter-hard soil, and so his thoughts drew back inside.
“Do you understand, Slava, that you shouldn’t ever be afraid of monsters?”
He shrugged. “Not even Vládmir Drákúl…not even Baba Jágá?”
Mother laughed. For the first time in weeks, her voice danced and played with the sounds inside of itself. Éosláv cringed, not at the sound, but at the manner in which it punctuated its own lengthy absence.
“No, Slava,” Mother said. “Not even them. Call them bad men or old ladies in strange huts that stand on giant chicken’s legs, but never give them your fear. If you do that, then you give them the key to your mind, and they will try to move in and take over. You must never let that happen. Do you understand?”
He nodded, sure that he understood.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Mother said abruptly, and the sudden shift in subject snapped Éosláv’s attention back into a more tangible, solid part of the here-and-now. “Go wash your hands and prepare the table.”
“Will Father be home soon?”
A stiffened mask slipped into place, hardening Mother’s face into something murky and impassive, murky and very vaguely alien. “He’ll be late,” she said in curt, clipped tones, and deep within her voice was a rumor of whispers and things heard in the streets. Éosláv thought of police and informants and mysterious leaflets passed from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, and stinking with mysterious tinges of tobacco crumbs and mimeographed trouble born in dark, secret cellars. There was trouble, he thought, brewing in Old Town, Centrum, and the Absinth Quarter.
Jacob’s voice flowed into the inward spiral of Éosláv’s grim recollections; his childhood dissolved into the insubstantial vapor of dying memory.
My father is dead, he thought, as if admitting it to himself for the very first time.
He’d put in a handful of extra weekend hours in the vault, hunched over a microscope as a centrifuge whined softly to itself in the background. He’d confronted the anomaly of an infestation discovered in what was once a wine cellar. He’d bashed himself against the unyielding obstinacy of a logovore colony nesting in and feasting on the remnants of….
“Yasha…” he said with as much warmth as he could muster. He smiled, brushing a tickle of hair away from the crest of his left ear.
“Are you hungry?” Jacob asked, the familiar pinch of his American English accent adding strange verbal color to the question. He spoke as well as any local: better than most country yokels. Éosláv’s smile widened.
The day was warm and damp: spring’s first good day. Éosláv had showered, scrubbing the work-scent from his flesh and from his hair. He’d thrown his clothes into the washer—all but his shoes—and now, in nothing but briefs and a towel around his waist, he sat in the front parlor window, nursing a bottle of local-brewed beer and navigating the intricate treacheries of mood and memory. He blamed the sky for that.
Jacob approached the window and sat on the broad sill, careful of Éosláv’s beer. He pressed his shoulder to the window-frame, between inward and outward swinging panes of wood-framed glass, anchored against breezes. Éosláv shifted to make room for him, and now, pulled one of Éosláv’s legs at an angle across his lap as he reached for the bottle of beer, stole a sip, and stared—for a moment—into Éosláv’s eyes. “You okay?”
Éosláv nodded, pressing back against his half of the window-frame. “I was eight years old when my father didn’t come home. You know that story,” he said, shrugging. “But today at work—” Silence broke the sentence long before its end, and he simply shrugged a second time, as Jacob stroked the scant hairs on his shin, his instep, and the joints of each pale toe. It was Jacob’s quiet habit, and a comfort to Éosláv.
“I’m hungry,” Éosláv said. “I want to go out and hear human voices with my food. I want to hear music, or at least the footsteps of friendly waiters.”
“We’ll eat out,” Jacob said, his fingers sliding around Éosláv’s ankle. “And we’ll walk over the river, if you want.”
“Finish your beer,” Jacob said, and the words were a kiss, a deep and welcome invasion, punctuated by the playful slide of Jacob’s fingers into Éosláv’s toe spaces. “And get dressed, unless your bath-towel is today’s fashion statement.”
Where work and a shower had been a prelude to dinner, the early-evening meal was a prelude to the quiet walk along the river.
Éosláv took quiet steps beside Jacob, the remnants of dinner lingering on his breath. They’d finished with coffee, and it was not until Éosláv thought of the act that he realized what ritual had taken place between himself and Jacob. It was the anniversary of his father’s death, or at least the springtime confirmation of that wintertime event, and though Jacob never said anything overt, never intimated any kind of act of commemoration, one had taken place. The restaurant—The Three Pipers—on Vinhrádskáyá Street had become the marker of the spring-time revelation that Father was not coming home. Ever.
The snows had melted weeks ago, and the last of the wintry chill had vanished, though Éosláv still felt the need for a jacket and thin gloves. It was springtime now: dinner at Three Pipers, and the echo of a single thought proved it.
My father is dead…things are beginning to grow and my father is dead.
Now, he picked his way through shadows and through streetlight, passing expensive boutiques selling Czech glass and Polish amber. Apartments, with their ornate, wrought-iron-railed balconies loomed above, and as the season warmed, asters and azaleas, begonias and anemones would come into bloom. Lilacs and wisteria might riot in the corners of courtyards, and other things would grow as well.
They walked east, across limestone cobblestones and across the ancient, stone span of Černý Most…the black bridge, its center span buttressed on either side by twin stairways leading to the cluttered island (Černý óstrov, the black island) where African immigrants in naval uniforms served paddleboat tours of the city, the river, the bridges to romantic holiday tourists. Fishermen launched themselves into the river from the island’s northern edge, though not all fishermen were interested in silvery, scaled things at home in the water. Ghosts lingered in the river as well, and half the fishermen in boats were ghost-hunters, anxious to snag one particular treasure or another into their nets for sale to American and Japanese collectors.
They paused midway across the bridge, where a Roma might spit to ward off the Devil, were the island not below, and with his elbows planted on the ornate, granite balustrade, Jacob looked out over the river: at distant city lights and their reflections, and the inkwell blackness swimming between buildings older than the country of his birth.
“You can smell the spring,” Jacob said, quietly. “No matter where you go, if it’s at the right latitude for distinct seasons, you can smell each season as it comes, as it ripens, and as it dies. I’ve always liked the smell of spring in Pekkur, though it’s not so different than spring in Preskiyn, is it?”
Éosláv shrugged. “It’s different, I suppose. Preskiyn is a dirty little city. Pekkur wears stucco and a strumpet’s neon lipstick so that tourists might spend money on her.”
“We could visit Preskiyn when we have time. Just take a break from normal routine.”
Éosláv cast a sidelong glance at Jacob, half-shadowed in the wan light of distant neon, street-lanterns, and reflections from the water. “You need a break?”
Jacob shrugged. “No more than anyone might, when they’re tired of work and the same weekends. Summer’s coming and Preskiyn’s only an hour away by train. We can go there. Decompress. Smell different air.”
Éosláv shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” There was mockery in Jacob’s voice. There was playful challenge. He sensed an evasion, Éosláv knew, and was stirred to curiosity.
He focused on the shape of a distant boat, with a lantern suspended on a low, mast-like pole. A fisherman’s boat; and Éosláv knew by its stumpy, fat shape, that it belonged to a fisherman of that other breed: a man (and perhaps his sons) with nets and eyes full of calculating hunger. They fished for the remnants of Communism, sunken to the bottom of the river. They netted river-stuff, shaped it into baubles and trinkets for sale in kiosks and antique shops in Old Town, and more than a few locals avoided them for reasons as arcane as Communist-fishing itself.
My father is dead.
Éosláv avoided the shops and the kiosks for his own reasons; a complex, emotional evasion, if he were to scrutinize it and name it honestly.
“There are more fishermen in Preskiyn…harvestmen and sellers. I don’t like them. I don’t want to see any more of them than already live in Pekkur.”
“You believe the stories?”
“Do you believe in succubae and insects that eat words and insects who are boyfriends?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “I believe in each of those things. I love one of them and accept the others as nothing more than the way things are.”
Éosláv shrugged. “And so why can’t you believe that Communism has ossified in the north, and that it becomes brittle in winter, thaws every spring; that snow-melt washes fragments of it down-river, collecting in riverbeds and lake-beds, and in the slime between the toes of every back-country pond? You’ve seen it…you’ve seen how it turns brown along the edges, how it turns black, and how tourists buy it, thinking that they’re buying old medals and authentic propaganda; that’s all they see: the stereotypes of Communism. They never once suspect that everything is different here, and that ideology can also be an encrustation dressed in illusions, slowly flushing itself out to sea.”
“And that keeps you from Preskiyn?”
“There’s more of it there…more than twenty-centimeters of it in the bed of the river; we’ve sold most of it off here, and there are probably only a few centimeters of pure Communism mixed with other stuff down there—” he pointed, hurling the gesture like a curse stuck to the tip of his finger. “—enough to handle, little enough to ignore. It’s spring and more of it washing down from the mountains, but those men are harvesting it by the net-load…getting rid of it. Selling it to tourists.”
Jacob nodded. “This is where we’re different, Slava…I can’t see it the way you do. I wish I could, maybe, but I can’t.” The warmth of sudden contact spread over Éosláv’s right hand, and Éosláv welcomed it.
“You’re the lucky one,” he said.
“Even if I cannot see something that, to you, is plain?”
“It is a bad thing.”
“Seeing bad things is a part of not being blind.”
“Are you blind, Yasha? You’ve seen my back…you’ve seen where I work. You’ve seen, and felt, what I did in order for us to meet. Can you say that you are blind, Yasha? Can you say that blindness is truly bad?”
The warmth of contact didn’t leave Éosláv’s hand. For a long moment, there was silence, and then, as if the body of a secret burned in his throat, Jacob spoke. “Every spring, I find you in a mope, thinking about something we never talk about. An anniversary. We go to the same restaurant, and that seems to cheer you up. Every spring, when flakes of dead ideology find their way into the river, we always walk here; I know that you’re leading me, that you need to find something. I can’t help you look for it, because I don’t know how to see it, how to look for it, or how to recognize it, even if I could see it. Spring is supposed to be a time for things to grow, but on this day every year—sometimes on weekends, sometimes not—I see something frozen, and I don’t know if it’s flakes of fossilized Communism that I should see in the water, or something else…but I want to see it, Slává; I want to know how to put my hands on it, so that I can help you hold it…or take it away from you all together.”
“Why?” There was, perhaps, more of a bite to the question than Éosláv intended and he regretted the harshness of the word.
“Because I fell in love with you on the night that you stepped on a lit cigarette with your bare foot. I fell in love with you again, when you pulled your Franz Kafka routine and worried that it would scare me. I fall in love with you every night, when you mutter in your sleep and steal all the covers without realizing it. That’s why, Slává.”
Éosláv closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. “Come with me,” he said, afraid that Jacob would let go of his hand. He shifted, clasped Jacob’s palm, and clenched his fingers tight. “I want to pick something up so that I can show it to you.”
“My father is dead,” Éosláv said, quietly. “We were Communists on the day that he left for work and Mother walked with me to school. The world made sense. I was eight years old. And then, he didn’t come home. On the night after he missed dinner, the Clockwork Revolution burned through this country, on the sound of alarm-clock bells ringing in the streets. I was afraid. My father was not at home, my mother was in a strange mood; she was a different person, a stranger, half-giddy, half terrified, and there were sounds…such sounds! The radio and television were telling horror stories about chaos and strikes. After a while, I went with Mother, to find my father. She was terrified, and so was I, but she was being brave. We went to city center, where my father worked. There were such crowds, so many emotions, but they all sounded like anger; the streets were crowded with people, acting as if they were at a party, in a riot; like they were sharks swimming in blood. Our way was blocked, and we were near Namēstē Centrum. Near the big statue of Comrade Šandoškov. I heard thunder, like a gunshot. Someone had planted explosives around Šandoškov’s neck and waist, like garlands. They blew up that statue. His nose went sailing across the street and crashed into the window of a book-seller’s shop, and there was Comrade Šandoškov’s nose and a part of his moustache, amid a litter of broken glass and children’s books. His body toppled and broke, suspended, for just a moment, by his chin stuck on tram cables.
“I didn’t understand what was happening, and I was afraid, because we couldn’t find my father and a pair of nostrils flew through the air. We never found him, my father. Even…after…
“…it was as if logovores had eaten his name. We remembered him, but he was simply not there. Just like now. He may be a ghost. I don’t know. I don’t want to see him if he is, but I need to know what happened. I need to know how he died, if he died, or if he simply…I don’t know…went away.”
They’d descended from the bridge and ambled around the island, until—in the near-darkness—Éosláv found what he’d been looking for. It was a puckered, flat thing, an outsized growth of lichen, or eroded glass with the crust of a beer bottle label still clinging to it. Éosláv handled it gently, transferring it to Jacob’s hand as quickly as he could, lest it reveal its history to him and become a thing he couldn’t stand to see. In Jacob’s hand, it shimmered and shifted, seeking to become the stereotype of Jacob’s expectation, only Jacob didn’t know what it was and it remained locked in the rotted, flattened organic shape that Éosláv saw…like a crenellated thumbnail ripped from some long-dead dissident, or the scale of an enormous, indolent lizard. It was an old piece of Communism, someone’s ghost, darkened along its edges.
They were at home now, beer on the cocktail tale before the Ikea-Standard sofa they’d purchased bare months ago. A single, 30-watt bulb burned in the faux-antique mood lamp that Jacob found in some back-alley kitsch shop. It was safe, Éosláv thought, to look at the dead flake of Communism in dimmer light because it remained indistinct and shadowy.
“It’s strange,” Jacob said, baffled unrest grumbling in his voice. “Politics. Ideology. Those are abstract nouns. You can’t touch them; you can’t hold them in your hands, and yet I’m holding this and I can’t explain it, but it feels…different. It feels heavier than it has a right to be, like it’s moving around…buzzing.”
Éosláv nodded. “I won’t handle it. It’s a ghost. Even though you know what it is, you still can’t see it, and it can’t interact with you. But for me, if I held it for too long, it would tell me what it is, it would put its story inside of my head, and I don’t want that…I can’t handle that.”
Jacob nodded. “I’ll throw it away, then.”
“Flush it. Down the toilet. Just drop it in and flush it. Water softens it.”
—And in bed, an hour later, Éosláv spooned into Jacob’s embrace, brushing the underpads of his toes against Jacob’s shins and insteps, touching him in the way that was language between them. He’d said little and was content with the silence, despite Jacob’s racing thoughts. He could feel them in Jacob’s flesh. There were questions. Observations. Brief sparks of awe, wonder, and more than a dollop of fear.
After a while, Jacob’s voice swam in the darkness. “Slává…?”
“That stuff…the flake of it that I flushed, the flakes of it that fishermen harvest and sell to tourists. It’s the tourists who shape them into medals and plaques and antique photos, posters, trinkets and other Communist-Era artifacts?”
“But with locals they’re…ghosts of some sort?”
“Yes. The one I showed you, the one you flushed…it was a fragment of something bigger. It was weak. I couldn’t tell what it was. It was angry and afraid, I felt that much. Maybe it was what remains of a dead dissident, or maybe it was the truth hidden by an official censor. My mother worked for the Ministry of Communication. She was a censor. Good at her job, but not good enough to avoid peeking at the things she blacked out, ex’ed out, or cut from public perception. She discovered monsters that way, and taught me how to fight against them. Everyone was a dissident back then. In Winter, we say.”
A shift in the darkness: Jacob’s spooning embrace tightened. “And your father?”
“A gentle man who didn’t talk about his work very much. He held secrets.”
“He was a dissident?”
Éosláv nodded, still afraid to voice that admission, even now.
“And when he disappeared…?”
“It was in winter. On the night my mother first told me how to fight monsters. I was bored. I felt trapped. Two nights later, there were strikes and protests. Dissidents had infiltrated most sectors of government and so the strikes were particularly crippling. The police joined the strikes…some of them…too many of them even though their numbers were relatively small. There was chaos. For a moment, it seemed like the end of the world, and for my father, it was.”
“And you never learned what happened?”
“Does your mother know?”
“We don’t talk about it.”
“And you want to know, don’t you?”
A shrug: the threat of tears. “I’m not sure.”
“Those flakes of…history…they’d tell you. Wouldn’t they. You might find one, and it would tell you what happened to you father.”
“It would do more than that,” Éosláv said. “It would be what happened to him. I need to know, Yasha…but not in that way. I need to know, and I can’t. And every spring, when the snows melt, more and more of that stuff collects in the river and in lakes and in stagnated little ponds. Less now than there was, but still…there’s a fisherman somewhere, who might have my father’s history. If I found it, I’d know exactly what happened and how it felt.
“My father is dead; Yasha…and I want to leave it at that.”
Jacob touched a kiss to the back of Éosláv’s neck. “Then leave it at that. It’s spring. The days are longer. Dark nights are shorter. Spend this spring letting go and letting your father be dead. Let him rest. I’ll try to help you do that, if I can.”
Éosláv closed his eyes, turned over, and pulled Jacob into his arms. They kissed for a while, and after that, they lay in dark, warm, silence.
My response to the “Springtime” Challenge. I hadn’t planned on writing another Agara story for this challenge, but in thinking of springtime, my mind wandered to thoughts of Eoslav’s life. I like him, and so this glimpse into his world was quite a welcome experience for me to explore and share. There is more, to be sure, and it will reveal itself in time.
As always, thank you for viewing, reading, and commenting, and I hope you've enjoyed this tale and are enjoying this somewhat cold beginning to spring.
- March 30, 2013
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