by Raji Singh
(As I do my archeo-apology work at the Fiction House, I continually unearth my great grandmother Shelva’s girlhood memories of her 1870’s Mother Russia.)
PART I: SWEET ANTICIPATION
My bedroom window is open. Drifting in with the cool summer night air is the sweet aroma of borsch Cook stews for our trip. I am so excited barely can I sleep. In the morning, we will take the train to St. Petersberg.
But I cannot wait. My imagination soars. My curtains begin flapping wildly, as never before have I seen. I hear loud whoosing sounds, and then even louder the rustling of feathers. Has some mystical force invaded my pillow? A soft voice beckons,
“Come Shelva. Time to go.” It’s Captain Polly. She lights on my windowsill.
Luny Mum beckons with her long moonbeam finger like a railway conductor, ‘All aboard, Shelva. For adventurin’, ‘atravellin’.’
I crawl from bed to bird and upon her soft plumage am carried swiftly up, and away.
‘Do svidaniya’, familiar old hometown Moscow. Instantly, I arrive. ‘Dobry den’ St. Petersberg, you glistening pearl along the Baltic. I am in a gown of thousands of feathers fashioned by Mum and Captain Polly – made from feathers falling from airborne fowl. “Thanks for the lift, Captain Polly.”
“Aark! Have fun.”
From ever-watchful Luny Mum: “Stay safe, Shelva.”
Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky says,“Greetings,” when I arrive at the Czar’s Winter Palace. Will he play on the piano the music he writes especially for me? “Now Your Highness; Ladies and Gentleman of the court, my latest composition, ‘Concerto Petite for Miss Shelva’.”
Famous writers and artists I meet in the Grand Ballroom: In the bright candle glow of the dozens of crystal chandeliers, barely can I see who kisses my hand, oh so gaullantly. It is wrinkly and graying Lev Tolstoy. “You are lovely as I have heard, Miss Shelva. No words could I write to enhance your beauty.” I swallow my giggle. “All I say is true, Miss Shelva. Would not you agree, Elfie?”
“Agree, I must,” says Elfmovich Repin as he bows. The pointed tip of his long, dark beard dabs against my wrist like a brush to canvas. “Never could I paint such a vision as she. For the wildflowers of the meadow would burn with their jealousy of her beauty. No amount of Poppy Sol’s eclipsing could cool them.” Elfie’s intense eyes burnish me. They say, “I lie to you, dear Shelva. I want to paint you in the nude.”
I turn away timidly, before my eyes can reply. “Oh no! Never will I let anyone paint me so!”
I dream I am Princess Shelva. Straddling close is the uniformed, gold-encrusted Count Zuboff of the Royal Equestrian Guard. His brow is wide, proud. His sharp, beckoning cheekbones warn ‘Look, but do not touch them for I will cut into your soul, and will eventually one day – for that is my way – leave you bleeding and alone.’ I, as all the girls of Russia who swoon over him, disregard the warning. I take his hand as he says, “I believe this is my dance, Miss Shelva.”
“Ouch!” Our grasp is slapped apart by a riding crop. “No,” counters the Czar’s ever-pestering nephew, Prince Yakoff. Yakoff is an ugly beast. Warts infest frog face. Cucumber nose is a rotten squishiness.
‘Ooo-EEE! How many first-cousin marriages had to occur to produce that? ’ I ponder.
He grabs my arm. I cannot wrench away from the cold clasp. “She is mine for the evening. She will want to hear all my many stories, in their fullest detail.”
Zuboff slaps him. The sound is that of a horse’s hoof trampling a snake. Yakoff releases me. Zuboff is shouting. “Miss Shelva is here for glitter, dance, and romance. Not to be bored to death by your dull stories, and scared all-to-Hades by your looks, Sir.”
Beautifully gowned ladies smelling of the latest Paris perfumes, and stately gentlemen in cumberbuns of many colors, gather around them. I scooch far from the melee that begins, to the far side of the cavernous ballroom.
A 500-piece orchestra plays sweetly, led by Tchaikovsky. He sees me and smiles broadly. I return it when he strikes up – I cannot believe it, everyone is hearing my song – ‘Concerto Petite for Miss Shelva’. A warm hand touches my bare shoulder. I turn. I stammer. “Your… your… highness.” He wears an ermin jacket; soft looking as anything ever I’ve seen. A burgundy silk banner drapes diagonally over it, signifying his royal lineage.
“The harmonious chords of Maestro Tchaikovsky’s music may be yours, but I believe the dance belongs to me. Shall we?” The son-of-a-Czar takes me in his arms and we waltz over the marble floor.
What would Mama say? I can just hear her now. “Feh to the tyrant and all he spawns. Mark my word, daughter. Even touch them, and you risk becoming like them.”
‘But Mama, his touch, so gentle.’ I put Mama, who is so far away in Moscow, in the back of my thoughts.
So handsome is this smooth-face Adonis not much older than I. His eyes are gentle blue pools in which I joyfully swim; his mouth warm as it brushes my cheek. Kind, are his words when he whispers, “Shelva, I’ve been entranced ever since you arrived. I believe…”
Luny Mum peaks through the Grand Ballroom’s tall windows, and interrupts. ‘Ahem, Shelva. Do not believe all you hear.’
‘Darn you Luny Mum. I didn’t hear what Alexander had to say. Now leave me alone.’
I whisper to him. “I so enjoyed the way you said that, your Highness. Be so kind and repeat it, so I may cherish your words even more a second time.”
He smiles so widely. His mouth is but inches from mine. I can smell the sweet wine of his breath when he says, “Shelva your presence stirs emotions that never before have I…”
I awaken and turn over. Tears, of joy, streak my face. I feel like I am almost floating above the bed. Luny Mum shines so brightly through the curtains I cannot get back to sleep. Doesn’t matter. I am so happy. I reside in that euphoric state between dream and reality. In my, awake, I truly am there at the Palace. It is all so grand. I twist, anxious to return to sleep, so the dream doesn’t wear off and I am just hometown Moscow girl Shelva again, scraping my feet on the sidewalks on the way to school – day after day. You must sleep Shelva, you tell yourself. To be rested for your trip of a lifetime. You feel the ballroom slipping away. You’re so tired. Sleep, Shelva. Sleep. You reposition your body over and again, and squint. ‘Go away Luny Mum.’
Suddenly you’re dancing again across the floor. You are there completely now. Staid Moscow life is gone forever. You now live in your dream. You love your family, Mama, Papa, brutter Ivan, sweet, kooky Uncle Vanya. But this is your new home. Alexander holds you tight. The night: You dance it away in the son-of-a-Czar’s arms.
‘It is quite simple,’ you tell yourself. ‘Just have them all – Mama, Papa, Ivan, Vanya – come live with you here – happily ever after. Forever you will dance, learn from the great minds of writers, artists, and composers that Mother Russia has. All you must do is be sure Mama or Uncle Vanya do not say something too outlandish and insult the Czar or his son-of-a-Czar in public as they do in private. That shant be too difficult, shant it?’
Perching on your bedroom’s windsill Captain Polly roosters, “Aark! Rise, Shine, Shelva.”
Poppy Sol arrives. ‘Rise Shelva.’
Papa comes into your room and jostles your shoulders. “Shelva. Get up. We have just an hour to get ready and get to the train station. St. Petersberg and all its glory awaits. Mama has breakfast ready. Ack! mine daughter. Why are you so hard to awaken on this most the most anticipated day of your life?” He goes to finish packing and give me privacy.
You imagine Poppy Sol and Captain Polly say simultaneously as you rise, and try to shine. “Luny Mum says you had a grand time at the ball.”
You smile at them – actually, you think it is the same smile you had all through the night. You say. “It was wonderful. Now, I cannot wait for the dream come true.” You close the window and pull the shades and anxiously dress for the trip.
Next week: St. Petersburg waits for you…
(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