Moscow but Dreaming

Chapter 3

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The first customer of the day surprised her—he stomped his feet and clapped his hands on the threshold, dislodging a small mound of snow off his boots held together by long cloth wrappings and his long military coat, its chest although still covered in white powder sporting recognizable chevrons and ribbons of the red cavalryman, one of Budyonny’s fighters. His hat and a red star decorating it gave Komarova momentary chills and her knotted fingers curled around the feather duster defensively. She took a deep breath and stepped forth from behind the shelves, to meet the gaze of the cavalryman’s clear eyes. The dead foxes stared too, transfixing the people in the crosshairs of their amber pupils.

“What can I do for you?” said Komarova. The flame of the kerosene lamp on the counter guttered in the draft from the door, and the cavalryman shut it without being told to.

“I have something I’d like to pawn,” he said.

“It’s a consignment store,” she answered. “Which means we can sell it for you, but we cannot offer you any payment straight away.”

“I can take it to the market then.”

“You could, I suppose.”

The two of them considered each other at length. “What is it then?” citizen Komarova asked eventually; by then, the shadows had grown longer, and the fox eyes glittered in their corners.

The cavalryman dug through the deep pockets of his overcoat. The snow on his clothes had melted, and only tiny droplets clung to the tips of the stray woolen hair on his sleeves, like fur of a cat that came in from the rain and was about to irritably shake off the moisture. From his pocket, the man extracted four horseshoes from his pockets. “For good luck,” he said.

“I can give you a copper,” said citizen Komarova. “It’s a deal.” The man smiled for the first time then, and she was startled by the glint of his teeth in the shadow of the shaggy unkempt beard, which looked unintentional to begin with. When he smiled like that, his eyes sunk and his mouth pulled back, and she felt a chill. She wrapped her shawl tighter still, and offered the payment on the palm of her hand.

He took it with cold fingers and was gone on a swirl of the coat, just as the four heavy horseshoes tumbled ringing to the floor. Citizen Komarova picked them up gingerly, and spent the rest of the afternoon stacking and unstacking them, and sometimes hanging them on the nails over the door for good luck. She was glad when the sun set and no one stepped foot into the shop for the rest of the day, leaving her to her thoughts and the visibly unlucky horseshoes.

The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komarova, who in her entire lifetime never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.

She picked up delicate dresses, the lace ruffling on the chest white as foam, or the ones that were light as air, held together by the silken golden stitching. These were the dresses for waists much younger and slimmer than that of the former countess, their skirts long and stiff with golden thread, puffed with petticoats. And still she held them to her bust and looked at herself in the mirror, parallel wrinkles running along her cheeks made more severe by the ruffled collars, by the artificial flowers, feathers, colored buttons. Her eyes shone at her from the mirror and she reminded herself of a hungry cat, not a clear-eyed child of the Mediterranean vacation.

The last day of January brought with it a howling wind, a bitter cold, and another visit from the cavalryman. Citizen Komarova was a bit puzzled by his repeat visit—unlike most, he was already paid for his horseshoes, and the army of which he was a part had moved on a long time ago, so there was no reason for him lingering behind. With him, he brought the cutting wind and the sense of great desolation. As citizen Komarova stared into his eyes, she felt the awful sucking void tugging at her soul, and the whispers ebbed in her skull like the distant Mediterranean in a pink shell pressed against her child memory ear.

“I have something else,” the cavalryman said.

“A copper,” she answered without even asking what it was, as if some force nudged her from the inside.

His gaze lingered on her face and traveled down, softening. “It becomes you,” he said, his hand motioning vaguely at her chest.

She looked down and blushed, suddenly aware of the lace shawl over the dress that neither belonged to nor fit her.

His large, square hand touched her elbow. “I’m Vasily Kropotkin,” he said.

“Like the Prince.”

“Exactly.”

“What do you have for me then?”

Metal clanged to the ground—two sabers in rusted sheaths and a horseshoe, a set of gold-embroidered epaulettes and several medals citizen Komarova did not recognize. “Surely it’s worth more than just one copper,” Vasily said.

She gave him two. Her fingers, gathered into a pinch as if for a blessing, touched his palm as if it was a holy font, and again her mind was momentarily invaded by whispers and bubbling, hissing screams. She took a step back and he disappeared again— she could never see him actually leave, it was him and then the opened door and a swirl of snow, the ringing of his spurred boots on the frozen ground, his long coat sweeping the path in the snow. And then she was alone, among the glassy staring eyes of foxes and the silently accumulating dust. As soon as the sun went down, she fled up the stair into her small, virginal apartment where the heat from the potbellied stove chased away her fears that crowded so densely and so coldly in the shop downstairs, where the dresses rustled and the imaginary whispers grew louder after the sundown.

Vasily came back in the middle of February, when the wind chased the twisting snow serpents close to the cold ground, and the icicles fringing every doorway and window frame pointed down like transparent daggers, threatening to break off and pierce at any moment. The door clanged open, and the cavalryman—gaunter and sadder but unmistakably himself— smiled at her. His lips, bloodless and thin, pulled away from his teeth, and his cheekbones became suddenly prominent, and the thousand ghost eyes—sharp as the icicles sparkling along the top edge of the doorway—looked through his, grey and cold.

Citizen Komarova felt a chill, and yet her fingers reached out, a greening copper held between them. She touched his callused palm before he had a chance to chase horrors from his eyes and he smiled again, warming, becoming human at her mere touch. The foxes in the corners reared and whispered, baring their teeth, their weak dangling paws clenching, their eyes clear amber and malice. She paid them no mind.

“What do you have for me today?”

He gave her a burlap sack, its bottom dark and crusted. She looked inside, into the pink lace of frozen frothy blood to see a horse’s leg, chopped off at the knee, its fetlock covered in long matted hair. She noticed round holes studding the circumference of the hoof and no horseshoe.

She looked away swallowing hard, fighting back a wave of nausea, a riptide of swirling blackness that edged into the field of her vision threatening to swallow it whole. His callused, working-class hand took hers, steadying her on her feet, and she blushed bright-crimson at his touch.

“I cannot give you more than one,” she said.

“It’s all right.” He smiled. “I will bring more.”

And before she could protest, before she could stop him, he was gone.

She had disturbing dreams that night—her usual memories of that one perfect summer overlapping over the more desolate and recent events, and one moment it was warm sand and smell of olive blooms, the next she felt callused working-class genitals pressed against the small of her back and she arched, sighed, and woke up, blushing, too hot to go back to sleep. And yet soon the waves pounded and the bed rocked under her, with the rhythm of the sea or something even more forgotten and unknowable, the warmth, the salt.

The shop downstairs caught the mild contagion of her dreams, the faint malaise—it behaved in the mornings, but as soon as darkened afternoons demanded that she lit the kerosene lamp on the counter, the shadows agitated the dresses, and the fox skins, shameless, wandered around the shop on their soft woolen legs. The severed horse’s leg thumped on the hardwood tiles haughtily, searching for its missing horseshoe. The lace unraveled and the dresses paired up and twirled in a dance or flailing panic, and fur coats chased away the moths with their long sleeves and then silently stalked the fox skins, who had the advantages of having body shapes rather than being flayed and stitched to others like themselves. They also had eyes, unlike almost everything else in the shop, and they did a better job avoiding Citizen Komarova and not blundering blindly into her.

By the time of Great Lent, on Clean Monday, almost everyone in N. was hungry, and the fast seemed a necessity more than an imposition. When Citizen Komarova left the shop, chased away by the disturbing goings-on, she walked down the snowpaved streets, wondering to herself at how quiet everything was, before realizing that the missing sounds were those that used to belong to livestock—there was no mooing, bleating, nor clucking; no hissing nor barking nor quacking nor meowing, for that matter. Even the human voices were few and subdued. She walked to the bakery and bought a loaf of bread, dry and raspy with mixed-in chaff. She took it to her garret and crumbled it into a bowl of water, with just a splash of precious sunflower oil, and ate it slowly, chewing each bite a hundred times, stretching it, stretching like a winter night when the sleep would not come. The skin on her neck hung looser, a long sad flap. Her waist however had grown slimmer, and now most of the dresses in the shop were too large for her, their full skirts swirling of their own volition about her feet, and sometimes swaying with enough force to make her stumble or almost knock her off her feet. She wore them all the time now, never sure when Vasily Kropotkin would show up but confident that he would. She did not bother to explain to herself why his arrival was important, and why it mattered if he complimented her flowing skirts and delicate crocheted flowers winding about her throat, so beautiful.

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