Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (10 page)

A world full of invaded women opened up before me, with gentle passengers that clung to their legs. Not just green veins, but green
vines
,
giving way to rich green pods and eventually small creatures with warm, sticky fingers. When the first afflicted woman saw her passenger emerge she was horrified, until the creature opened its eyes. They were—how to describe it? Very dear.
A woman alone was just a woman, but now she was chemistry, a valence of heart and hope
, Orlov wrote.
The beings triggered bonds so elemental that they seemed like natural law
. Most of the time they kept their eyes pinched shut to conserve energy, but occasionally they blinked at their women so tenderly that none could bear to do them harm. Some even took on the illness intentionally, fostering their passengers with pride. Legislation was written to protect the creatures, making it illegal to try and snip them free, as many had done in the early days. Because how did they survive? They sucked the energy from their women like milk through a straw.

One girl tried to fight this, arguing that children, at least, should be allowed to get the creatures removed and try to live their lives unencumbered. But she was shouted down over and over again, until at last she died of a gunshot wound on the floor of the senate, her purple blood leaking out across the white tile. When I closed the book after reading the last page, the whole world was winking out—once the women all succumbed, life became impossible. Babies couldn't be born. Men died out, lonely. And at last the only sentient beings left were the passengers. They'd never intended to do harm, but now they were starving to death on an empty planet, tugging at one another's arms and wailing as they realized there was no one left to love.

Lights winked out across campus, too. In my room, I hugged the book to my chest and tucked up my knees, turning my whole body into a knot and closing my eyes, just for a moment. I remembered my old life, its sweetness and annihilation. A pan of
piroshky
baking in the next room, the mist of yeast and meat and broth filling up our whole apartment. My father waving to me across a field in the summer, the light burning out my view until all I could see was his silhouette. My mother, brushing aside a strand of hair before leaning down to kiss my forehead. And then, too, my face, crushed against the pavement, a cacophony of ordnance exploding above me.

My blood was warm and thick, my eyes heavy. I fell asleep still clutching the novel, and eventually it migrated between my thighs. When I woke with a start in the middle of the night it was still there, hot where my skin pressed into it. Outside the wind made a sound like an animal. I threw on some clothes and rushed to the greenhouse, bringing the book with me. Not to read, just for company. So I could remember for a little while longer the feeling of opening it for the first time.

 

Lev

26 June 1931

Airmail via [Redacted]

There isn't much time today, Vera. The days seem to be shorter, here, where the west meets the east. And I'm not talking about loss of light, I'm talking about actual hours. The practical tock of the clock, tick-less. Sudden jumps. I pick up a cup of wretched coffee in the morning, and before I set it down the day's gone, and I've accomplished nothing. Time is always different without you, but this feels new. Were you previously winding something in my heart that I wasn't aware of? Is there a wifely duty you never bothered to outline? Please reply and help your liminal Lev.

The good news is I've got a lead on a courier at last. As you know, I can't very well stroll across the Soviet border and hand them my passport. People have been killed for less. The courier and I are supposed to meet and discuss terms at a quarter to four, dead of night—which I thought was twelve hours hence, but I just glanced out the window and saw a sky of inky blue, so maybe it's sooner. I've probably lost time just scratching out this paragraph. And me with so many things left to do: I need to count half the man's fee upfront, in small bills. I need to clean my little Galesi pistol, which is essential on the streets, and such a pretty thing. Mother-of-pearl handle, dark snub nose. It's almost alarming how fond I've become of it.

But we were talking about my manuscript, weren't we? (Or anyway I was, but considering your correspondence habits lately, that's more or less the same thing. Me, with a pen in hand, imagining the look on your face, which comes so clear I know in an instant everything you would have said after making it.) I still remember the reeling of my senses, a feeling not unlike vertigo which overtook me when you said you'd burned it in the kitchen fire to keep me from debuting with a story below my worth. Too concerned with politics, you told me, too insular, just not good. Your face was calm, perhaps a bit of fret about the lips. I put my hand on the table, to steady myself. You said I looked green, and I broke out in so much sweat it seemed I'd been washed over by an ocean wave. I walked out of the apartment onto the streets of Paris and didn't return for a night and a day.

I have no recollection of that interim. My first time jump? Or a simpler answer: a mind frosted over for its own protection. Erase what should, by all measures, be lost. When at last I showed up in your building's vestibule, I was stubble-grown and raw of throat. Still wet all over, though you said there'd been no rain.

Even then, back in your arms, I dreamed for a time of your murder. Many scenarios presented themselves: a sympathetic fleshly fire, a bullet, a pair of hands around your throat. But you know this, don't you? You were there, after all. You peeled my fingers off your neck, face calm as evening. You pressed me backwards, away from you—not a shove, just a suggestion—and picked up a cigarette, licking the tip to check for stale tobacco before lighting a match. Your father had gone out for a bottle of champagne, the better to celebrate our upcoming nuptials. I looked at you and quivered, Vera, because you seemed to know everything I didn't know.

But. We don't need to dwell. Do we need to dwell? I just saw a star fall across the velvet sky. Red sparks in black night—so, not a star, but a shell, exploding in what looks like celebration. I feel I'm back in that close apartment, watching you smoke. Drawing deep breaths, sucking in your cheeks. Exhalations more magnificent, coils undulating through the air. After which, you drew me forward, understanding that I would forgive everything. An explosion is a pleasure, Vera. An explosion means release.
Do you know that the word
grenade
comes from
pomegranate
? So many seeds, spilled. So many chances, lost—or perhaps you could say honed, winnowing life to its essential pieces.

I wanted you dead. You put flame to paper. We both had our reasons, didn't we?

 

Zoya

24.

For a while I was sure that Kay would do something awful. She'd run to the administration and claim I'd perverted her vocabulary. She'd accuse me of aural assault, or battery of the brain. I thought she'd try to get me fired, just from spite. It would've been, in some ways, a relief.

Instead, days passed and—nothing. At first I waited for the early class bells to ring before venturing outside my greenhouse. I finished all my morning chores, weeding or watering, spritzing a mixture of hydrogen peroxide to decrease the chances of mildew and mold. No biology students were due that week, on account of the weather, and so I was able to creep away unmolested and go into town for breakfast. When I returned, I reluctantly opened the greenhouse for viewings (a simple matter of turning over the WELCOME sign, since I couldn't leave the door ajar), and day after day no one came to visit except a first-year named Daphne who liked the hydrangeas.

I confided to John O'Brien about what had happened, and he laughed before turning serious. We were replanting some of our first seedlings into their mature pots, and he stuck his spade upright in the dirt, brushing off his hands and giving me his full attention.

“Zoe, have you ever considered going on a date or something?”

“What?” I must've looked shocked, because he quickly shook his head.

“No. Oh, no. Not with me.” John went a bit pale with embarrassment. A few months before, after a couple of beers and a dinner with Siobhan,
he had pulled me into an embrace while walking me home. I hadn't even needed to protest—he drew away of his own accord and apologized profusely, saying he just felt like we were family, and had gotten confused. I never brought it up again. “With a young man. Someone your age?”

“Oh,” I said.

“It's not that I think you did anything wrong, honey,” he added. “I just wonder sometimes if you don't need another place to turn your attention. So those girls won't get under your skin so much.”

I promised him I'd think about it. There wasn't, in truth, a lot of extra time in my days, though of course I'd structured them that way on purpose. The greenhouse was my life, and I kept a mental calendar of which sections needed pruning or fertilizer, how often a major cleaning was required to keep the window glass pristine. Before I left in the evenings—provided there was no freeze in effect, and thus that I was able to leave at all—I whispered good night to many of my favorite plants individually, thanking them for their hard work and telling them how beautiful they'd become. In my time off, I often had to wash or mend my clothes, or else clean out my room, and was always surprised by how much of my time cooking and shopping took up every week. I was in the process of looking for an apartment, as well. It seemed likely that unless Kay ratted me out for vulgarity, I'd be offered an extended contract at the greenhouse, and I didn't want to stay on campus over the summer, or ever again. There were several small houses being let in the area, and I'd been making my way through them with help from Nadine, who enjoyed circling rental notices in the newspaper. When all that was through, I liked to read, or take quiet walks by myself. It seemed a full life.

But there was something about John's suggestion that struck a chord with me, nevertheless. My body had always been serviceable: long enough limbs, strong enough hands, good teeth, decent digestion. I'd been so young when I began working with my parents in the Lipetsk field that it felt natural to consider my legs primarily in terms of locomotion, and my fingers as diligent pincers for plucking weeds or removing pests. In school I changed focus, but still, there were things I needed. Eyes for reading,
the ability to sit without growing stiff. I hadn't given much thought to the fact of my body, its very existence. There'd been no call to.

Lately, though, things were different. It would start like this: a morning walk around campus with the clouds grading down into fog and then mist and then rain, moisture stuck to the fibers of my sweater, heat inside my clothes. I'd breathe in, and the air would have a scent like chopped ice, though it wasn't quite cold enough anymore to snow. Bits of too-big gravel would trouble my feet beneath my shoes, and I'd kick them off the path, turning just in time to see a swallow sweep down over the lawn. And then came the girls.

You might think that a year would be long enough to get used to constant touch, but in my experience the longer it goes on the more you simply become attuned to it. On the same quiet walk, I might see two second-years approaching on the path, and they'd knock their shoulders into mine, tossing my body first one way and then the next. Two would become four would become six would become ten: neat shoes crushing down on my toes, an unlikely heel kicking my Achilles tendon and leaving a bruise that would persist for days. Girls seeming to run for their first class, but slowing to a walk once they'd swatted my thighs with the books they were carrying. Pinches in the lunch line, pinches in the greenhouse. A hand reaching for my cheek and then snatching at my ear, giving it a tug.

When I wore my hair back it was always pulled. When I tucked in my shirts they were always yanked free, and objects were inevitably knocked out of my grasp. After Kay tripped me my palms scabbed over, and the scabs were so large I could feel them bend. And this—this is the part I could not tell John, or anyone—my body buzzed with the sensation, and I didn't want it to stop.

Here's what a bruise can do: ache and ache. You press your thumb to it and there it goes again. Purple pain, morning pain, private pain to explore in one's own bedroom. Tear a piece of skin off like you're breaking the peel of an orange. Snap a rubber band on your wrist until the flesh gets vivid.

On the whole I did not want to hurt myself. But I kept walking into the cafeteria, didn't I? I kept letting myself stray into the part of the campus
where I knew girls took smoke breaks, noting the uptick in heartbeats per minute that felt like fear but also desire. My system was nervous, sympathetic. The more blood in the room—but let's not get macabre; I mean swimming in veins, beneath skin, blushing lungs—the more blood in my cheeks. A senior let her cigarette fall onto my bare knee, and I gasped at the burn with an interest that covered more ground than just pain or surprise. They still infuriated me, these girls with their dads and their cars and their beaus, their sweater sets and tennis whites and ski vacations and beautiful, terrible smiles. I hated them because they were so cruel to me. But I needed the cruelty, because it was the only way I felt hands on my shoulders, fingers down my spine. Pull my hair, push me over, grab my wrist and draw me close.

My body: I knew it, all of a sudden. And if I didn't love the life I was living, at least I knew I was alive.

25.

John kept pestering me, and over the course of that spring I did agree to several dates with boys from town. “Young men,” as John called them, who had jobs at the soda shop or the local factory, packing spring coils into boxes to be shipped to another factory and used in who knows what contraption. One of my dates was a veterinarian's assistant, and I enjoyed meeting him at his clinic: he took me to the back where there was a wall of cats in tight cages and a row of kennels full of dogs experiencing various degrees of distress. It was like a more boisterous version of the greenhouse, and I told the boy this. His name was Colin.

“It's like what?” he said.

“You know, they're all separated by type, and you have to do tasks to keep them healthy. Trim parts back, give them a drink …”

I trailed off, seeing Colin's frown. I was reasonably certain John had told Colin what my job entailed, so I wasn't sure what he found so strange in this comparison.

“It's an entirely different thing,” he told me. “Plants can't think.”

“I know that. I'm just saying there's a likeness—”

“Hey, uh, the movie's soon.”

Colin put his hands in his pockets and looked towards the exit. I followed him out, and we hurried to some ridiculous matinee, having rushed to make the cheaper show so Colin could also afford to buy me a popcorn. He kept trying to put his arm around me, and though I wasn't opposed to the idea, it made walking to the theatre difficult and watching the movie impossible. Every time I shifted in my seat he tightened his grip, so whatever new position I worked myself into was made uncomfortable in a different way. Popcorn kernels got stuck between my teeth, but I didn't want to pick them out while he was so near to my face. There they remained, and when he tried to kiss me at the theatre's exit—I'd refused to be walked home, not wanting to bring a boy to campus—I turned my head aside, and Colin never asked me out again.

We did run into one another a few weeks later, though. Colin was coming out of a bar, and I was walking home from Sugar Books, where I'd been disappointed. Nothing special, nothing new.

“Hey Zoooeeeeee,” he shouted, half a block away. “Hey Zoe, you know me, we went to a mooovieeee.”

I stopped and let him catch up; Colin's friends laughed and kept walking in the opposite direction, so when he reached me we were alone.

“Zoe,” he breathed, reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. During our entire date he hadn't said my name half so many times. “Why were you so mean to me?”

“I was—what?” Colin smelled sweet and like sweat. He hummed and fizzed. “How was I mean?”

“You said the animals were plants. You wouldn't let me kiss you good night.”

“Oh.” He was now fiddling with a button on my green jacket, so the fabric pulled against my shoulders and chest. I looked down, suddenly shy. “I guess I was afraid you wouldn't like it.”

“Come here.”

Colin stepped away, and walked into an alley behind the tailor's shop. They appeared to have abandoned the process of changing their window
display, and several dummies languished there, headless and half-dressed. The alley was full of sickly brown puddles from the spring melt, but I went anyway. Colin took me by the shoulders and pushed my back against the brick wall, and there he kissed me. His breath muggy. His thumb resting on the place between my bottom lip and chin. He pushed his legs against mine, and let his free hand move down to my waist, and I kissed him back, little knowing what else to do, and also—wanting to. With each breath, I seemed to be taking air right out of his lungs, and this puffed me up until I grew light-headed. For a second I was sure my feet had lifted off the ground. That my skirt had lifted from my knees.

“Hey!” A voice called out from somewhere around the corner. “Lover boy! Come out, come out!”

“Ah—” Colin drew back with a look of fleeting regret. But then the wolf whistles started, and he seemed to remember something. “Well,” he said. “Fair's fair, now. Done is done.”

“Done?” I repeated. I was not done.

“See you around.” Colin touched my chin one more time. Then he jogged out of the alley and shouted something I didn't quite catch, which was met with hoots and more whistling—the sound of which diminished down the block. I leaned against the wall and listened to their footsteps disappear, and when it was perfectly quiet again I straightened my skirt and went home and put myself to bed.

26.

In the end, Kay didn't do anything. That is, if you don't count telling the other girls to be increasingly nasty without ever telling them why. More vile names were whispered to me when I walked across the commons, and a gutsy squad of seniors broke into the kitchen to steal a dozen eggs, which they waited half a week to use, ratcheting up my anxiety by the hour. I kept waking up and running to the greenhouse, expecting to find a smear of yolk and shell on every pane. But at last they threw a few each at my back, making two hits and several near misses
which smashed on the sidewalk and were washed clean by the rain. I didn't tell anyone, though it meant dry-cleaning my coat mid-season.

I never told about anything, really, except in confidence to John and Hilda. I carried on. What else was I supposed to do? At the end of the year I got the extended contract, and John took me out for a glass of celebratory wine. I signed a lease on a furnished house five blocks away from campus—one bedroom, a study that was attached to the living room, and an eat-in kitchen. My own bathroom, at last. In the greenhouse my orchids were thriving, and a well-traveled parent sent me a bonsai tree, which I dutifully pruned into contorted proportions.

The staff were expected to attend graduation, mostly standing around the edges of seats filled by students and proud family members. Seniors were placed up front, and the other girls sat in order behind them—I could see my own spot from the previous year, now occupied by one of the egg girls. Her hair curled and pinned back neatly beneath her cap, a smile of self-satisfaction quivering on her lips. I listened to the speeches about greatness and empathy and moving into the world to do good in our dark times—America wasn't at war, but I suppose all times feel dark in their own way. Certainly the day felt different from my own grad ceremony had, more bittersweet and ominous. Afterwards I accepted a piece of white cake with yellow frosting, buttercream.

“Hi, Zo!” Kay called from a nearby table. An eating area had been erected outside to help celebrants enjoy the weak spring sun. “I so look forward to seeing you again next year.”

She beamed, and I tried to smile back with some measure of aggression, enthusiasm. But it was as if all my emotions were on mute; even Kay couldn't get a rise out of me. She seemed distant and almost dear. Already parents were lugging boxes into cars while girls signed yearbooks and blubbered over their good-byes. I could feel the shift. A floodgate, open. A tide, receding.

When the proceedings were over, I went back to my little house and lay down on top of the bedclothes. I still hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of relaxing in the living room, sitting on a couch or chair. But the house was mine. I rubbed the edge of the blanket against my cheek, calling
up the faint memory of a blue bunny, many years before. Lost now. I felt a bit sad, and reminded myself that I had work to do all summer. Good work. We'd planned a total inventory of the species in the greenhouse, reorganizing and cutting back as necessary, making room for the new year of biological science students and their Mendelian experiments on radish seedlings. I was going to help John choose new border flowers for the campus walkways. The weather would grow hot, and I would take one of the wooden kitchen chairs out onto the porch and sip iced tea. There would be fireflies.

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