by Raji Singh (archeo-apologist, Fiction House Publishing)
Unearthing, almost daily, more stories and whimsical histories of Fiction House residents and writers. Continuing here is my great grandmother Shelva. She’s a little Moscow girl of the 1870’s, going on about Uncles so endearing to her.
PART I: LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY WONDERFULLY ECCENTRIC FUTURE UNCLE – WILLIAM-WILLAMINA – but, first…
It is 1850’s America – a decade before I am even born. Their Civil War to free the slaves has yet to begin. My kooky Uncle Vanya, adventurer, trader, a searcher for life’s simple joys,travels there. He brings precious things from Mother Russia to sell. He buys, inexpensive but unique west of the Atlantic items – oh, cowboy carvings, Indian trinkets, fake gold that looks real – things Muscovites never-before see, but willing to pay a grand price for.
Uncle Vanya’s sea passage is free, even shows a profit. By day, he’s a dungareed, shirtless coal shoveller in the ship bowels. “Two tons is your quota, Vanya. No quitting til you reach it,” shouts the gang boss.
Then, as the gallant, debonaire Chameleon that Uncle Vanya is, he scrubs and changes into a tuxedo, the works – Uncle cleans up nicely. He becomes a pristinely attired dinner and gambling table guest of European aristocry. This most always means for Vanya, sumptuous joys in the belly, fat joys to the pocketbook, and, later, grand joys within the ballroom.
“May I have this waltz, mi lady? Did anyone ever tell you? You bear a striking resemblence to the beautiful Grand Duchess Christina.”
“Dear Vanya. You are a sweetie,” says the non-gullible matron. “Shall we dance!”
(Let me just stop a moment. I do not consider my loving Uncle Vanya kooky. I say that only playfully, as jest. Uncle likes it when I do. But Papa truly believes Uncle is, just that – kooky. “Your Uncle could teach math, science, language, or philosophy at any of Moscow’s great Universities or Gymnasiums (pronounced Gim-naseums), Shelva. It is high time he leave his airy life behind.”)
In America, Uncle Vanya sees things in certain places that disgust him. “Feh!” I can just hear him say as he spits on a sidewalk. “Never did I think I would see anything viler than then the Czar’s boot-grinding system of peasantry. Never! And in this free land. Ach! So many are not free. But there is hope. As in Mother Russia, where so many strive to remove the yolk of peasantry. So too, are there those here helping to free those who are enslaved.”
It is under these circumstances Uncle Vanya meets my future uncle, Uncle William. But on this night, Uncle Willam is Willamina.
PART II: THE RUSE OF CAT BOXING ALONG THE OHIO RIVER
Uncle Vanya’s gaming vice gets him in trouble as often as his attraction to a pretty face. But tonight, one will save him from the other.
Cash changes hands frequently as Blackjack Fiction both touts and referees ringside. He wears top hat and tails – to signal, ‘I am the Ringmaster.’ The ring is a roped off three by three feet area of the riverbank. The catbatants, in shiny satin shorts mill nearby, trading the variety of imported catnip stimulants their trainers supply. Small torches barely light the gathering-around spot for the dozens of men and a few women. “Place your bets folks,” Blackjack hawks. He waves his hands continuously. “First up: We have a six-rounder twixt undefeated felines. Win or lose these tough Tabbies will give you your money’s worth.”
Blackjack glances at Uncle Vanya. This is their first meeting. Uncle’d heard about this ‘sport’ and wagoned in from not-far-off Cincinnati where he was buying and selling. (Vanya’d later introduce Cat Boxing to Russia, where it would become the passion from highest Royalty on down to vilest Cossack.) “Well stranger,” says Blackjack sizing Uncle up one side and down the other. “Haven’t seen you here-bouts before. You look like the type who recognizes a thoroughbred hisser.”
Uncle Vanya, always one anxious to join joyfully in, and to please, (that’s another weakness – one that seems to harm only him) he says, “Da, mine friend. Back in Moscow the pusses follow me down the streets as if I have sardines in my pockets.”
“Then lay yer rubles down and we’ll get those pockets filled with so many coins no sour fish would ever fit in.”
“Ah, but I have only dollars, mine friend.”
The crowd laughs. “The rubled rube,” someone jibes.
“We’ll accept those too,” Blackjack says. He leans and whispers to his flowing blond-haired associate in a crimson gown who holds the bets. “I’d wager he’s conniving. Using the naivete ruse to achieve some edge. Doesn’t matter, eh Willamina…” Blackjack circles his arm aound his brother’s smooth, bare shoulders and squeezes. “…A single Russian ruse can’t trump a pair of Ohio fakers.” (Grand showmanship!)
“Make it quick,” Willamina whispers in Blackjack’s ear. “Just got word that Kunta and Turt are bringing in a half-dozen instead of two. We could make good use of his wagon.”
As Willamina stares at Vanya for a few seconds too long, Vanya notices. Willamina winks at him. Vanya smiles and studies Willamina’s softly contoured face. So familiar. So pleasant and alluring in the shadows. ‘Was she on the ship?’ Willamina sways so gently, grasping the dollars and beckoning men to pony up more. ‘She moves as if she could be a ballerina,’ Vanya thinks. ‘Did I see her performing Schvaan Lake in New York?’ He is intrigued by this hinterland Goddess. It distracts him from his usually golden gambit.
PART III: THE BOUTS
These are muzzle-less matches but bare-paw is prohibited.
The first fight is a laugher. One tabby slips on a slick spot of the clay riverbank. Never rises. The next one is no better. In the second round, a Siamese takes a left paw to the snout, sails over the ropes, ‘plunk’, right into the Ohio. “Neee-owww!” Has to be netted out, sopping. Automatic disqualification. Bout after bout, Uncle Vanya loses.
Blackjack says to Willamina, “He’s not concerned. Pretending distraction.” No one hears their conversation midst Siamese’s continually echoing, tormented ‘Nee-owws.’
“Distracted by me, it appears” Willamina coyly observes. “Well that’s happened before. Though in this case it might be part of his scheme. So let’s change ours a bit, Brother. Need to check on our shipment anway. If he follows me, we’ll know how to proceed – with one final all-or-nothing bet.”
PART IV: A SUMMER NIGHT’S ENCOUNTER
Blackjack watches Vanya leave. He’s confused. Vanya doesn’t follow Willamina. He goes the opposite way and disappears into the darkness. ‘A single ruse can only bluff a pair of fakers,’ Blackjack speculates. The bell rings and the next catbatants come out, tamp gloved paws, and the cat fight commence. ‘Up to you to call his bluff, Willamina,’ Blackjack thinks as he does double duty as referee and announcer.
~ ~ (editor note: I must point out, as some of you know who are familiar with the abolitionist and underground railroad history of the two brothers that William/Willamina wrote of under the nom de plume ‘Golden Boy’ Golden: This, and many of the well-publicized Cat Boxing Tournaments of the mid 1800’s were well-orchestrated facades for their activities.) ~ ~
What Uncle Vanya sees when he circles out of sight and arrives back at the river a few hundred yards from the Cat Boxing, pleases him greatly. Willamina hikes dress slightly to be able to wade into the muddy water and help a half-dozen ragged, runaway slaves to shore. A glistening six-shooter is one hand, to battle any possible slave catchers. The raft the escaped slaves are on is roped, and towed by a giant shelled creature, the likes Uncle has never seen. Its fin-claws anchor into the mud as it trudges to the shore. “Another fine job,” Willamina says, petting Turt’s beak-snout.
Uncle Vanya is about to run over and say, “Don’t Dearest, he’ll bite it off,” but restrains when Willamina says to a stately and nattily-dressed negro man, obviously Captain of the escape,
“Blackjack and I have been trying to angle a tricky Russian out of his wagon to haul everyone, Kunta. If we don’t succeed, appears it will be foot travel from here on. That is getting ever more dangerous.”
An odd glee overtakes Uncle Vanya. This unexpected encounter gives a chance to assist downtrodden, as he can only occasionally do in his own Motherland because of the Czar’s iron grasp. And it will give him an opportunity to be near, and get to know, the lovely Willamina.
He rushes back to the Cat Boxing ring and proposes a fool’s all-or-nothing bet to Blackjack.
Before any of the onlookers can shout, “Don’t be a stoopid Roossian,” Blackjack shakes Uncle Vanya’s hand and says, “You are on.” Blackjack grasps the man’s hand for moments longer than he would most men’s as he studies him. He sees a look he cannot explain and then says his gut feeling to himself. “I see in his eyes, he does this for more than money or chance. This man is as Golden Boy, and Kunta, and I. He lives, breathes for much more than monetary return. Well, I guess a single Russian ruse every now and then can trump a pair of Ohio fakers – or at least play them to a draw. All, undoubtedly, with the help of Willa… um, Willamina’s beauty and charm. Now, just where will that lead?”
Blackjack continues his act so no one else, possibly slave catchers, might possibly catch on. “Start the bout. I’ll take your wagon, Russian, and leave you to walk back to town.”
NEXT WEEK: AN ILL-FATED ROMANCE
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh