A Voice Lesson

In the winter of that year, in the City, at a cafe called The Singing Toad, the course of my life was being decided. I didn’t know this at the time. I was standing outside in the snow, clutching my books to my chest and staring in. A curtain of steam clung to the window; through this I could see the little white lights strung from the ceiling. The scent of Turkish coffee escaped into the street. The coffee-drinkers appeared to be all talking at once. I could see that every word they were saying was important, and that they all loved one another even when they fought. They rifled the pages of books, then shoved the books into one another’s faces, chins jutted, spit flying. Hands raked through heads of unkempt hair or else flew upward in exasperation.

I passed the cafe twice each day, walking back and forth to school in my uniform of woolen blazer, blouse and skirt, with a blue woolen winter coat buttoned tightly over the entire ensemble, so that I felt like a sausage in casing. I wore my hair pulled back under a cap according to school rules. I would not dare to step into The Singing Toad—into the hot coffee-scented air, into the steam—until I had shed my schoolgirl uniform and enrolled at the university.

~

I asked my friend Jeni to come with me that first night because I was scared sick. We  dressed like every other girl art student in the city: in black sweaters and opaque black stockings, bright gypsy skirts, and of course our snow boots. We had pinned our hair into chignons and painted our lips crimson. My mouth was dry and my lipstick came off in tiny flakes that I chased down with my tongue and then swallowed.

I held Lucian’s first book crushed between my arm and my body. It was a novelization of his childhood in the mountains, and I was completely taken by it. He was raised in the far north of our country, the only son of the mayor of a tiny village. His mother had been—probably still was—the village librarian, which meant that she circulated her own books from the front parlor of the family house. As a result that little village had a higher rate of literacy than any other town or city in the province.

During Lucian’s childhood we were a free people. The coup that swept the General’s military dictatorship into power did not happen until Lucian was ten—the same year in which I was born. I had never known life without the General—his private army and his police force that brooked no dissent, that sometimes knocked on doors in the night. When I read Lucian’s book I saw a red mountain lit with wildflowers against a sky like a blue glass bottle. (“In the deep mid-summer I would leave my house at dawn, with a bit of bread and cheese in a sack, and then, as September crept in, a satchel of small, tart apples. Our village was blooming with boys and I was never without friends. At dusk our mothers’ voices rang through the mountains. Days are long when you have not yet learned anything of the world.”)

I could see the child Lucian plainly, russet-headed, petal-cheeked, his white peasant-shirt rippling on the breeze. My own childhood unfolded in the city, where it was always too cold or else too hot. Never enough room to spread out, and never quite enough apples or cheese to fill you.

Lucian’s idyllic version of the past made him a darling of the nascent Opposition Movement. And while I aligned myself fiercely with the Movement, mostly I was in love with Lucian himself. And now here he sat at the very center of The Singing Toad, anchoring the big wooden table where members of the Movement—who chose their words carefully and never mentioned the General by name—gathered every night. The author photo on the jacket of Lucian’s book, being black-and-white and quite small, did him no justice. His hair was a dark mane that crackled with electricity. His beard was darker. His features were so finely drawn that he could have modeled for the Jesus in the altarpiece at St. Gregory’s, and his hands were brown and slender.

Someone whispered to him now; he threw his head back and laughed. What I wanted was to fall into his lap and cling there, to put my face to the opening of his collar where the dark hair showed. I knew beyond doubt that, having fallen in love with Lucian, I would never be able to love anyone else properly. I could marry another man, and live with him for fifty years, and even be happy, but Lucian would claim the innermost chamber of my heart until I died.

Dramatic, no? All right, probably I did not sense all of this that first night. I was only eighteen and not prescient in the least. I am putting the ideas of a middle-aged woman into my younger head, and that is not fair. The love I bore Lucian that night was pure—not yet sullied by unanswered letters or by phones that rang and rang, or by long dark nights lying on a stone floor while the mouth of Death breathes right into your own mouth. My love was the kind you might feel for a pop star. I hadn’t even spoken to him yet.

Of course he had a woman at his right hand, a thin blond woman with a peasant’s shawl that looked as if it were thumbtacked onto her urban sophisticate’s torso. She was clearly a spoiled brat from the Castle District of the City, a real Uphiller. Her voice and diction gave her away. She was pretty enough from a distance but if you looked carefully—which of course I did—her teeth were misaligned, and the only word I could find to describe her nose was “sad.” Her eyes swept over every other woman in the room, from Jeni and me at our wobbly table-for-two, to the white-haired widow sipping tea at the counter. Each of us a potential usurper.

“You should talk to him,” said Jeni. “Take your book over there and make him sign it.”

The very thought turned my coffee to sludge in my stomach. “I can’t. Not tonight. Maybe next time.”

Jeni pinched my arm. “Marina, you’re a fool if you don’t do it now. He’s here tonight. Next time he might not be.”

Of course she was right, but I knew beyond doubt that even if I approached Lucian that night—if I managed to navigate the maze of crowded tables without tripping, without jostling someone’s chair with my hip, causing them to spit out their drink—I would not be able to utter a word. And now Lucian took the blond woman’s hand, kissed it, gazed at her with the devotion of a rescued puppy. The woman flushed and blatted her triumph around the room like a trombone.

“Disgusting,” said Jeni. “That old bat. Get over there and make him sign your book.”

Before the night was over I would learn the name of Lucian’s woman (Uta) and I would decide that I hated her, a position from which I have almost never wavered.

~

My earliest poems were awkward, full of short staccato lines that gave nothing away, and sudden, ill-placed longer lines that blurted colors and syrup and desire like a big dog that knocks you down and slobbers on your face. Yet I was told I had promise, and the university press published a slim chapbook for me at the end of my second year.

To my great horror, my first public reading took place at The Singing Toad. Seven of us were on the bill—four young men, three young women. I would be the third reader that night. Not amateurish enough to be the opening act, but not at all good enough to bring the house down at the end. I sat on the makeshift stage clutching my little book with the paperclips holding the pages and perspiring into my black sweater.

All I could see when I stepped up to the lectern were the candles on the tables and the dark figures hunkered around them. It was a well-meaning audience made up almost entirely of the friends and families of the readers, but the Toad regulars were gathered at the back, irritated at being displaced from their habitual seats and ready to pronounce judgment.

“Louder!” someone called out as I stumbled over my opening line.

I did the best I could. I raced through the poems and didn’t do right by them. They weren’t bad little poems for such a young person to have written, but before long my throat dried to a husk, and I kept having to pause to clear it, and then to swallow.

I knew Lucian well enough by now to consider him a friend—all right, an acquaintance—and this, if anything, this left me more determined than ever to break through. I knew he was sitting somewhere in the back of the room, in the shadows, under the rafters, his fingers no doubt entwined with Uta’s, her whole body turned toward his as if she could climb into his clothes, into his skin, and live there, no longer a separate being, because that was how they always sat, and that was what Uta did, and it made me sick that she wouldn’t stand on her own two feet but spent all her time and energy in keeping Lucian close and in fending off the attentions of other women like me, and frankly Lucian was somewhat tarnished in my eyes for just sitting there and taking it. This was really a kind of madness on my part, but one that fueled me and pressed me forward.

Two of the three poems I read that night were about Lucian, although not in any obvious way. But I knew, and that was enough. I soldiered on, my voice growing ever more ragged, sweat breaking out on my face and pooling under my arms. I earned polite and perhaps sympathetic applause from the crowd, along with whoops and whistles from Jeni and my other close friends.

Later on, when the audience dispersed and the chairs had been dragged back to the tables, Lucian sought me out and took me briefly into his arms, planting a kiss on either cheek as he would for a comrade, or a brother.

“You were wonderful,” he said. “It’s very difficult to pour your soul out in front of strangers like that, no? But it gets easier over time, and you’ve got to keep going, keep moving.”

I barely had time to take this in, to register the fact that he kept his fingertips resting lightly on my arms, that he was looking very searchingly into my eyes, when Uta detached herself from the shadows and made straight for us, her red dress a flare of rage, a false smile pasted on and her eyes wide open like mouths that could devour me.

“Ah, the young poetess,” she said, attaching herself to Lucian’s arm. He stepped back a bit from me and leaned into her, as if her mere presence sapped the strength of his legs. He raised his eyebrows at me and I did not know what to make of that.

Uta said, “I loved that line about—what was it—‘I would be jealous like a goddess, and set you in a constellation out of reach?’”

“‘I would be a jealous goddess.’” I corrected her automatically, feeling irritated but also impressed. No one pays more attention to your words than someone who doesn’t like you. “I only wish I had read it better,” I added. Why? Why make myself look weak in front of her?

Uta smiled. “Your problem is that when you get nervous, you forget to breathe.”

To my great surprise she pushed herself off Lucian’s arm and took a step away. She planted her feet squarely on the floor, took a deep breath, and began to sing: “O come, go back, my own true love, O come, go back, my honey. I’ll lock you up in the chamber so high, where the Gypsies can’t come ‘round you.”

Her voice was pure and strong, without the high note of hysteria that infected it when she spoke or laughed. It seemed to me that she pulled the song up from the soles of her feet, her left hand pulling it along, beating the time against her thigh, so that the words drew strength from the whole length of her body before it escaped her lips.

“—and that’s with just one good breath of air,” she said. “You can train yourself to do the same—a good breath, but a subtle one, before you read each line. After a while, you’ll find it comes naturally.” She smiled. “And now I’ve given you a voice lesson.”

For the length of the verse she sang, I had forgotten to hate her. But now I hated her again. A voice lesson! Who did she think she was? Lucian drew her close once more. They both stood there beaming down at me. I’d forgotten how short I was until they did that.

~

I found a lover of my own within the Opposition movement: Stepan, an aspiring writer, an acolyte of Lucian’s only a few months older than me. Now it was my turn to be on the receiving end of jealousy, because Stepan was blond and beautiful as an angel. A former choirboy who still looked like he should be wearing his robe, or a pair of wings. I knew he was beautiful, and good and true, and I loved him in my way. But he could never quite stir the ashes of my soul the way Lucian did. (Did I not say this would happen?) Nevertheless, this was probably the happiest time of my life. Stepan and I lived together in a narrow house in the Old City, on September Street, just two rooms on the fourth floor. I enjoyed our domesticity: cooking our meals together, leaving for our jobs in the mornings, going to meetings in the evening, waking up at two a.m., at four a.m., to make love.

I did not enjoy my job clerking in a shabby lawyer’s office, or the nights when the heat and hot water were shut off, or the mice (which might have been small rats) that sometimes went scuttling across the linoleum and over the toes of my shoes.

The best time came when finally, after months of meetings disguised as parties, and plans slipped inside birthday cards dropped into certain mailboxes, and telephone calls in code during which I nearly always couldn’t help but laugh, the Opposition Movement finally went on the march.

~

We began on a Sunday morning, from a small park in a dingy corner of the city. At the forefront were the strongest men we knew, the Union men, walking with arms linked. As we moved through various neighborhoods and districts, more people joined us, bundled against the chill in all kinds of cheap imported coats—plaids and camel-hairs and shiny fake leather—and cheap woolen hats in red or blue or black. By the time we approached Central Square (or The General’s Square, but none of us called it that) there were perhaps 300 of us, and we had acquired pillowcase banners and cardboard signs that demanded freedom from tyranny in letters red as blood. Even if it meant that the king came back from exile and lived up in City Castle once more, still that would be better than The General. No one could be worse than The General.

It was a cold day as I’ve said, but suddenly the sun broke out and you could smell spring in the air, all damp mud and green, and the trees in the side streets showed small, tight buds, and I thought I could feel the roots waking up under the pavements; the entire city holding its breath. Wait till I tell Jeni, I thought, for she had married and moved to the countryside, and her absence was the only thing that could dull this moment for me.

Walking with Stepan on my right and Lucian on my left (and Uta on the other side of him) and the strong men in front of us—all workers with big arms and their winter coats unbuttoned at the neck, hats shoved back on their heads or stuffed into pockets—and all of our friends behind us, pushing us forward, singing old folk songs, I realized I had never felt so much part of everything around me, and I remember worrying that this would be a fleeting golden moment, and even as it unfolded I was already regretting its passing, and fearing the future.

~

The arrests began not that night, but the next one. The knocks on doors, men and women dragged away from their children, their parents, their lovers, always between two o’clock and three o’clock in the morning, when you had already sat up until one o’clock staring at the front windows, and thinking to yourself, if they haven’t come by now maybe they won’t, and I can go to sleep. That’s when they come. The moment you think they won’t. So that you’re jerked out of your sleep of nervous exhaustion and pushed barefoot into the cold street with your children crying in the house and nothing you can do.

They skipped over Stepan and me. We weren’t important enough—a struggling novelist and a struggling poet, one barely published, the other not published at all. But they took the ringleaders, the loudest voices, the ones whose arrests would make an impression on the general public. (“Did you see that they arrested that doctor, that dancer, that actress? We’d better keep our mouths shut.”)

During my lunch break from the lawyer’s office I rushed out to a phone booth to call Lucian. I had never, ever called him although he had given me his number months earlier—“because comrades and colleagues must be able to find one another when the merde hits the cooling device, no?” My pulse rang in my ears. The phone rang and rang in Lucian’s apartment.  So I knew, but I didn’t know for sure until that night, while Stepan was drying our dinner plates, and I was sitting hunched like a raven over my typewriter.

There was a knock on the door and Stepan dropped the plate he was drying. It was plastic and clattered on the linoleum but did not break. He looked at me with wild eyes.

“Answer it,” I said.

He very nearly said, “no, you,” but then remembered he was the man and strode to the door. I saw his hand trembling on the chain. He was only twenty-two. “Who’s there,” he said sharply.

“Uta. Let me in, for the love of God.”

Stepan unbolted the door and Uta fell into the room, hair wild, face smeared and splotchy. She looked at me desperately, cried, “Marina!” And collapsed into my arms. I had to hold her up.

~

We bailed Lucian out of prison with money borrowed from his publishers. This would not have been possible were he anyone else, but his stories had already endeared him to an entire nation, authoritarians and dissenters alike. The General’s thugs could only hurt him to a certain extent, then they would have to stop. Cuts, bruises, cracked ribs and a couple of broken fingers were, perhaps, enough to teach the rest of us a lesson. Anything more—prolonged torture or, heaven forbid, death—would have made Lucian into a martyr, and the General could not afford to let that happen.

Still I was distraught when the guards walked him out of the City Jail (he had been held elsewhere, a secret location, but transported back to the City after the money changed hands) and into the daylight. He stumbled between them, his head hanging, his hands inexpertly bandaged. Had Stepan not been holding me in his arms I would have run at Lucian, but I could only stand and watch as Uta, supported by two massive union men, walked forward to claim him.

The guards, a pair of featureless, brown-uniformed any-faces, would have loved nothing more than to kick Lucian onto the pavement. But standing jaw to jaw with the union men, they merely gave him a shove forward.

“Take your faggot terrorist home now,” said the guard on the left. The one on the right laughed, then hawked up a glob of spit which didn’t manage to hit anyone.

Lucian’s knees buckled. Uta shrieked, but one of the union men caught him and scooped him up in his arms like a child. His legs dangled. His hair fell back, revealing a mask of livid purple and black bruising. Every cell in my body urged me forward: Go! Run! Touch him, save him! But Stepan held me fast in his arms, where he could surely feel my heart turning over and over like an engine in a cheap domestic car.

~

“Give me something to do.”

These were the words I whispered into the phone on a May morning, just two months after the march and the subsequent arrests. Huddled in a phone booth a mile from home, my mouth as dry as it had been for my first poetry reading. I could hear rustling on the other end of the line, then a sigh unwinding like rough cloth. I needed to see Lucian, to be in his presence. I would have done anything. For me, Lucian was the revolution, Lucian was the Opposition. I saw myself coiled at his feet like a tigress, holding his enemies—our enemies—at bay with my teeth and claws.

“All right,” Lucian said. “Come over on Sunday afternoon. Come alone.”

~

It was the kind of book any of us would have been given as children, having attained a certain level of religious education. About the size of my hand, made of soft red leather, the front cover ornately tooled, and at its center a tiny painted icon encircled with semi-precious stones. It lay on Lucian’s desk like a little red bird among the newspapers and scrawled letters and cheaply printed pamphlets, drawing my stare away from the three tarnished bullets in a ceramic ashtray, alongside the pistol from which they had been emptied. The book made me feel closer to Lucian, less in awe of him, as if we had grown up at the same time and gone to the same school.

He rested his fingertips on the cover. Both his little finger and ring finger were twisted slightly out of true. My heart ached to see this evidence of the brutality wrought on his body. I wanted to warm his fingers between my palms, to take them gently in my mouth.

“This is what you’ll carry,” he said.

“That? That little book?” I had imagined myself cutting across the countryside smuggling weapons, contraband. A note written in code which I had memorized and then eaten.

“Yes, this.”

Lucian picked the book up and opened it. He—or someone—had cut through the pages a precise rectangular hole, inside of which a stack of foreign currency fit perfectly. The book lay in his hands like a bird cut open. The money was pinkish-red, like guts.

“Oh,” I said. “And you a writer. How could you.”

Lucian laughed, showing all his teeth. “And you a poet, always feeling pity for rocks, trees, bricks.”

Though the bruises on his face were still not entirely faded, never had I so much wanted to kiss and punch someone, both at once. Such a strange feeling. Nothing like the uncomplicated desire I felt for Stepan when we first met, but rather a slow burning I had been living with for years, which grew and grew, then twisted back on itself every time it was thwarted. A moment of thick silence passed in which I could hear the clock on Lucian’s desk ticking, then a footfall out in the corridor that made us both jump.

“Uta won’t be home for hours.” Lucian’s eyes widened briefly with surprise, as if these words had been spoken not by him, but by someone else.

I hardly dared move, but Lucian slapped the book shut and held it out toward me. All at once his room filled with sunlight, though the windows were so dusty that the light had the quality of grainy film or an early morning dream. I took the book from his hand.

“Listen carefully,” he said. “First thing tomorrow, you’ll go to the North Station and catch the express for Angeline City. My friend will be on the platform there to meet you. You’ll say, ‘hello, it’s good to see you again,’ and pass the book onto him. Carry it in that old canvas bag of yours, with your other books. Braid your hair and don’t wear any lipstick. You’ll blend in with the other schoolgirls. No one will notice you.”

“Of course they won’t,” I said.

Lucian laughed again, quite uproariously this time. “That’s not at all what I meant. Come here, silly girl.”

I did as I was told and felt his two arms come around me, a hard circle of heat. I heard the book hit the floor. Lucian grunted. Worried about the book, the money. Not about me.

The first thing I tasted was the rough cloth of his shirt. Then his beard, his tongue. My back was against the wall, but the urgency was all mine. I snapped my teeth at his neck, his ear.

“Marina,” he whispered.

I tried to pull him closer. I ground my hips into him. I could have eaten him whole.

The phone rang, loudly, two times, an awful sound, like coins spilling into a metal bucket. A signal. Lucian gently removed my hands from his hair, from his neck. He stepped back, let his hands drop. His eyes had gone dark—so he did want me!—but they shifted quickly from my face to the phone on the wall. I stood and stared at him, hungrier than I’d ever felt during the food shortages of my childhood.

“When you get back,” he murmured, “we’ll speak. I promise.”

~

Lucian’s friend did not meet me at the station in Angeline City. Someone else did.

The smallness of the cell was what finally got to me.

Not the cement floor, nor the bucket in the corner, nor the stink. You can get used to humiliation pretty quickly when you have no choice. You can get used to shitting where you eat. Getting shoved to the floor a few times is no big deal; same for being dragged forward by your hair. An ugly stranger’s fingers in your privates is pretty bad; I would not lie about this. It’s pretty bad. But survivable. For the most part. You stay quiet and hope that will be the worst of it.

But then you come to yourself on the cold floor and find your head against one wall and your feet flat on the opposite one, your knees slightly bent. A very small cell. Then you stand and your head nearly hits the ceiling. You are not a tall woman, not at all. There is no light but what strains through a narrow grille at the top of the door, and that door only opens onto a dim corridor. You’re locked into the narrowest oblong of thick, brownish air. Not a jail cell like the ones you’ve seen in films. Not a cage. A cage would be fine; you could see through the bars, stick your arms through. This is something much worse. An oubliette, a packing case, a coffin. You have no idea what is on either side of you, or up above, but you can feel the space getting smaller and smaller, the air being sucked out. A trash compactor. A slow death by suffocation.

You whimper. You gasp. You gasp again, over and over. You can’t stop. You want to, but you can’t. A series of rhythmic gasps that bring no relief, the feeling that your lungs are imploding. That’s when you start scratching at the walls, hurling yourself against the door.

That’s when the ugly stranger comes back, this time with friends. The door opens briefly. Briefly, you can see a light. Then it slams shut once more.

One tries to reason with you.

“Please shut up,” he says. “This noise will not help you.”

He offers you decent food. Half of his own sandwich—look, there is ham, there is even mustard. He offers you a swig from a bottle. You want to accept these things, you do, but you cannot stop gasping.

So the reasonable one gets fed up, puts his hand to the back of your neck, throws you on the floor again.

The ugly one pulls you up by your hair. Always by your hair. Now the reasonable one grips your chin so that you could not close your mouth even if you tried. You see the glint of steel. He touches the blade to your lip.

“Shut the fuck up right now or I take your tongue,” he says.

You shut up. You do.

You keep your tongue, but you lose your voice. For good.

~

Things change in the country. The General dies. His son takes over. Modern times come. The oppression remains, but is quieter, is less spectacular, is swept away under a civilized rug. The young leader is a patron of the arts and does not feel threatened in the least by a pack of aging revolutionaries. So their old books, their paintings, their films, once considered dangerous and subversive, remain current. Lucian’s novels are turned into television mini-series. People watch them and sob, caught up in the romance of it all—the peasant shirts, the goats, the apples and cheese. They have no idea.

Although the poet is unrecognizable, and is not remembered anyway, she walks in the shadows of buildings, keeping close to the walls. She starts out from the small village of her exile early on a Sunday morning. Her old friend has given her a stern lecture, a hug, some money. Bells are ringing in the hills; traffic is light. When she must cross a square, she stoops, hides her face under a well-worn hat, whose brim she can tug down over her eyes. During a decade of privation—sometimes intentional, sometimes not—she has been whittled to bone and muscle. She keeps her hair cut short. All traces of who she once was have been erased.

The day is cold but the sun bakes the bald places in the hills, and as she passes through them the poet feels parched, pauses to rest and coughs dust.

She reaches the house at twilight. A place of broken splendor since the night, decades earlier, when Lucian and his men broke in and drove the officer who lived there, along with his wife and children, into the forest.

In the fading light the poet notes the missing roof slates, the vines engulfing the chimney, a scrim of dust on every window. Lucian is exiled too, but differently. He is still connected, still loved. His books are the nation’s soul. People still thrill to the voices of those phantom mothers ringing through the hillsides. In every city and every town, in every filthy dog-shit slum, people watch the films on TV, year after year. No one will ever hurt Lucian.

So this remote location, these guards, are all somewhat unnecessary. A vanity, perhaps.

Some aging comrade with a fallen belly, dressed in a pastiche of military and law enforcement gear, sits on the porch railing, staring off into the trees. He stands when the poet approaches, shoulders his rifle, grinds his cigarette into the floorboards.

“What do you want?”

The poet wants to laugh. She removes her hat and gives the man a slow patient smile.

Eyes wide, muttering, the guard removes his own hat to reveal a shining bald dome. He bows slightly, steps aside to let her pass. Another aging soldier emerges from the shadows to lead her into the house.

The poet’s heart begins to hammer; she can feel it in every part of her body. The feeling of being led into a basement room for questioning. Not entirely inappropriate. The wooden floor, the lamplight on the yellow wall. He has tried to recreate his old digs here in the dead man’s house. But it’s the smell of Turkish coffee that slams her back into that long-ago winter, and for a second her knees fail her and she sways.

A chair with worn crimson upholstery faces away from her, a sort of mock throne. Just the top of his head visible over the back of it, his fingers, unmistakable, pulling through his roughened hair.

The man who led her in clears his throat, announces her. A book hits the floor with a sharp report and then Lucian gets to his feet, spins around to face her. Hanging on, just for a moment, to the back of the chair. Disconcerted but only briefly, always smooth like that, a man who charmed his own assassins. He has put on weight, but not much. He wears the long embroidered shirt of the northern goatherds. Still a man of the people. His hair is thinning but he has kept it long. His beard is only touched with gray.

“You’re here,” he says. He doesn’t say anything else but the poet can read the question in his eyes. Why.

The poet has folded her arms across her chest to still her shaking. But let him see me shake, she thinks. He’s seen it before. She lowers her arms, shrugs out of her coat and lets it drop to the floor. She cannot unclench her fists. She can gauge by the slight widening of Lucian’s eyes a slight recoiling. How much she has changed. Not for the better. She stamps her foot on the floor and he starts. Of course. She is a haggard, voiceless freak. Too bad, too bad; let him see.

She fixes her eyes on his. She thinks, you put the book right into my hands, you gave me the words.

“Let me get you a drink,” he says, and makes a tentative move toward the doorway.

She shakes her head. He stops. He looks at the clock on the wall.

The poet is full to the back of the throat with words she cannot say. The golden moment, she thinks, sunbeams shooting into the room from every window, the book that passed from his hand into hers like a kiss, and then the real kiss, and then the moment was over—she didn’t leap on it when she should have, and in her present condition she cannot conjure it back.

Lucian takes another step backward, then brightens, crosses the room to a desk, the top of which is very neat as if never used. He stoops and rummages through a drawer.

He says, “Here is one of your poems. An original. I’ve kept it all this time.” He unfolds the paper and holds it up so she can see. A brown circle where someone has put down a cup. Then he turns it back toward himself and begins to read:

“Love is best when mixed with despair. In our country, we won’t call you a Lover if you escape the pain.” He looks at her, and his green eyes deepen to that special sweetness she has remembered all these years: the city park in summertime, the fountain, cut grass.

“You always understood,” he says, leaning forward from his ankles, one hand drawing a picture in the air, “the anguish.”

She nods. Yes, yes.

“The anguish,” he continues, “we all endured, living under tyranny.”

So he will never remember, nor will he understand. The anguish of the poem belongs to the poet alone. Not to the damned country. Only to her.

The poet lays her hands on Lucian’s reading lamp, clenches her hands around the metal stem, snatches it up off the floor. She swings it in an arc, pulling the plug from the wall, plunging the room into darkness. The last thing she sees is Lucian crouched down, covering his head. The poet hears once again the footsteps, the men coming for her.


PJRiverRiver

PJ DeGenaro’s short story, “Everything is Not Yet Lost,” was awarded Best Thing We’ve Read Today by the Furnace Review. Her fiction and poetry have been published in literary magazines and journals, including the Adirondack Review and the Westchester Review. After spending a number of years as a graphic designer, she earned an MFA in Fiction from Manhattanville College. She has taught academic writing to college freshmen, and has run a creative writing workshop for her local adult-education program. She currently teaches creative writing to teens and tweens, which is hugely enjoyable. She lives with her husband, son, and dog in White Plains, New York.