by Raji Singh
Shelva writes passionately about traumatic girlhood experience with a mysterious rope-haired man. She is in a private compartment, aboard the Moscow train with her Papa. St. Petersburg bound. It is the 1870’s.
* * *
Almost all aboard are asleep. This, I believe is why Blackjack is so conspicuous now, talking to the rope-haired man in the dim light of the corridor: Because Blackjack wants only me to see the man.
I press my face to the corner of the barely open door and squint out through the slit. My forehead and temple crease into the splintery wood. That hurts. But I must see if I can read Blackjack’s expression. Is he taunting me mentally? “You cannot escape from him, Shelva, not on a fast moving train. There is no use you trying.” Blackjack is in his velvet evening jacket, calm and collected, unlike me. To him this is a velvet evening. To me it is Hell. I am scared, perspiring nervously under my sleeping robe.
Even though Blackjack and the rope-haired man are so close that they could walk to me in a few seconds, the clattering of wheels onto tracks makes hearing anything they say impossible. I barely hear my thoughts,
‘Why are you doing this, Blackjack? Why does that man follow me? I do not understand; cannot understand any of this. You became like a member of the family. Papa, Mama, brutter Ivan, Uncle Vanya: We all trusted you with what was most precious to us, Blackjack – our love. Please, oh please. Let this just be misunderstanding.’
But, how in the sacred name of Mother Russia, could it be?
For the briefest of moments, the rope-haired man looks my way. I just know he sees me peeking. Questions continuously torrent like ocean waves through my thoughts, ‘What does he want of me? A wife? I am too young to be married to anyone. Never to such a corpulent, odd-looking old fellow. Cook? Maid? Our household always had help for those things. I know nothing of that work. Is he the Czar’s spy? Hoping I reveal something about Mama, Uncle Vanya, or Papa, that his Cossack minions might use as an excuse to hurt them.’ I shiver. Certainly the Czar could not want to hurt my Brutter, Ivan – I’d…I’d, hurt him, that is for certain, if he were to try to harm Dear Ivan.
The train jolts unexpectedly. I must grab the door handle to keep from being flung, crashing into the glass partition, and being hurt. I almost topple out. If I had, my tormentor could have quickly grabbed me; and maybe, away with me, forever. Of such illicit slavery, we big city Moscow girls, often, are warned.
When I steady myself and peek out again, I see the rope-haired man looks behind he and Blackjack. His startled look reveals that he is suddenly wary of something, someone. Blackjack glances back, and then nods to him.
Blackjack and I have gotten to know each other so well in the last few months. Best friends, I thought, until now. We can almost sense what the other is saying by eye movements and facial expressions. I sense Blackjack’s words as he speaks to the man. “Hurry! Now is the time, Brother.”
‘Time for what?’ What does he mean by that? Must I prepare to defend myself? And, ‘Brutter?’ Why does Blackjack call him that? This is all senseless as a nightmare.
Blackjack’s glance to me says, answering the first part of my question, “THIS, my lovely Shelva, is what it is time for.”
The rope-headed man begins unfurling his turbaned hair. Ever so slowly, he bee hives it down around his face, shoulders, orb belly, and knees.
What is happening?
He starts to turn in a circle, and then spins on the ball of his foot, as would a Bolshoi Ballet master.
All of a sudden, he stops. He whooshes up his hair, twining it around one hand. It is a wig prop. Gone is protruding belly – probably a pillow. Gone too– his white suit. In his place is a statuesque woman in a long dress matching her golden locks. I sniff. Even from this distance, I can tell: Her sweet Paris perfume replaces his cigar pungency.
I blink hard. What am I witnessing? I squint to see better. Luny Mum helps me by beaming onto her face. For barely a moment I believe I see two Blackjacks beside one another, although one is a man and other a woman – the high cheekbones, dark eyebrows, pointed chin that suddenly scalpels flat.
‘Oh!’ Surprised, I realize. I am seeing Blackjack’s notoriously eccentric brother, William, for the first time – and what an introduction to him it is: as his Willamina persona. My kooky, but never usually fooled Uncle Vanya told me many stories, rife with adventure, about him/her. Uncle admitted to me that he fell in love with Willamina many years ago in America before he knew she was a he. Later, they became best of friends, compatriots in America’s abolitionist movement.
(You can read all about their bizarre, but convivial interlude in Post No. 51: UNCLE VANYA DISCOVERS THE FALLACY IN FALLING FOR A FEMME FATALE TOO QUICKLY of Tales of the Fiction House, blog site.)
“Everything is a guise, to William/Willamina, Niece, if it can bring someone justice,” Uncle Vanya often explained to me. “William has three, sometimes four outfits puzzle-stitched together. He can become someone else at the least whim. He is a true hero, Shelva. He utilized his quick-change artistry to help runaway slaves to freedom, the way we quietly help to throw off the yolks of those the Czar has made peasants.”
Just moments after William spins his locomotion ‘quick change’, I barely believe what I see. It is a real rope-headed man. It is obvious to me now; William was replicating his looks. The man approaches and stands a few meters behind Blackjack and William. The brutters realize he is there. I know this, by their cautious facial expressions. Blackjack’s look says to me. “Now you know why I had to pretend to not know him, Miss Shelva. It was for your good, Dear. And it will be for your good that you know as little about this as possible. Trust William and me, Shelva. And no harm will come to you. You will be proud of what we will soon accomplish for your downtrodden countrymen and women.”
What I’ve gone through on this trip is so unnerving. I try not to tremble, but I cannot. There were two rope-haired men! Which have I been encountering? The good-spirited William. Or the…
And, still the question bores into me:
Why? What does he want – of me, and no one else? The ruse of being the rope-haired man must be William’s ruse to protect me from the real rope-haired man-fiend.
I feel vast amounts of relief about my friendship with Blackjack. The thought of losing such a dear friend had been so devastating. That burden lightened, I breathe easier. My relief, I’m sure Blackjack sees every word of it. Almost as if it is spoken from my heart and etched into my spontaneous but hard-come-by smile. “I’ll trust you and your brutter, Blackjack. Because my family has come to love you so.”
The rope-haired man slips away. He cannot approach me just now. I am certain that is what he planned. Not with others so near. Hopeful they will be near often on this journey.
NEXT WEEK: HERE COMES THE PUSSYCAT PARADE!
(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