by Raji Singh
ON YOUR MARK…
Mel Blanc – the elastic voice of Bugs, Porky, and so numerous other cartoon characters: His classic song, Here Comes…I’ll wager its inspiration came from the grand cat parades inaugurated, first in America and then in Russia, by my great-great grandfa, Blackjack Fiction. Blackjack was Grand Marshall at the First International Cat Boxing Tournament in St. Petersburg. Did little Mel’s grandfa or grandma attend? One can imagine them telling the lad countless tales that played in his dreams until feline choruses whisked him away.
Here begins my great grandmother Shelva’s girlhood accounting of that infamous Russian parade.
* * *
GET READY FOR THE PARADE!
I awake to the sounds of our Moscow train arriving St. Petersburg Station. “8 a.m. Right on schedule,” I say to myself as I glance the clock in the up stretched hand of the imposing bronze statue of Peter the Fabulous who greets all incoming passengers.
~ ~ editor note: For a brief time in the 1870’s Czar Alexander II changed the name – a oft occurring, but seldom lasting tradition of Russian dictates, e.g. Leningrad, Stalingrad. Alexander began using Peter’s ‘Great’ for himself. Sensing backlash from the people and even many of his Cossack minions, quickly he relinquished his ‘Great’, returning it to Peter. ~ ~
The squealing steel wheels against tracks, the steam whistling, announce us.
Boisterous shouts – “Welcome Travelers” – they are of those on the platform waiting to see returning family and friends. Passengers poke their upper torsos through the cars’ open windows, frantically waving and hollering. It is all so deafening. Despite the commotion, I am able to hear Poppy Sol as he squints brightly through our compartment’s skylight.
‘Luny Mum waxed eerily poetic of your horrifying experience with the rope-haired man, Shelva. It is a wonder you slept the night.’
To the grand old man of the sky, my reply: “Tired, not so much, but I am still scared.”
‘In my bright, Shelva, he dare not harm you. So do not worry. Now, then, you must not tarry. For the promenade will soon commence. That is why everyone is so cheerful today. Anxiously have they awaited the furry four-leggers.’
Poppy Sol discreetly blinks behind cloud curtains while I change from robe and nightgown into a bright yellow summer dress and bonnet laced with catnip. Like baubles, beads, and candy thrown in other parades, I will toss the treat to the four-leggers who have come to watch their famous boxer counterparts.
Nervously I fidget. “I can hardly contain myself, Poppy Sol. Mama’s told me so much about the grand cat parades of olden days. Maybe this one will revive those unique spectacles.”
‘Perhaps, my dear, and wouldn’t that be wonderful!’
The door opens. It is Papa. He brings a warm wet washcloth and hot cocoa that has the luscious earthy aroma only Mother Russia can cultivate.
“Who were you talking to Shelva? Someone on the platform?”
“Just basking in the wonder of the morning light, Pappa.” I stretch, wipe my face with the cloth, blink crusties from my eyes, and savor my drink.
“Ach, Daughter. You were conversing with Poppy Sol, of whom Blackjack often speaks. Such imagination you both have.” Papa peers out the window and says, “Blackjack, Captain Polly, Ragamuffin, and Cecily Cobra departed soon as we stopped, to ready Ragamuffin’s palanquin for the parade. I am looking to see they’ve caught their carriage.”
Papa doesn’t fool me. He looks for the rope-haired man. Instructions from Mama. “Like a hawk, watch over our daughter. You never know what dangers may befall a young girl. Remember my cousin Svetlana and her tragic fate.”
DON’T…GO! NOT JUST YET,
BECAUSE THIS IS THE ‘AND OTHER MATTERS’ MENTIONED IN THE TITLE
How many times Mama tell me of Svetlana? So many. Maybe at our kitchen table? In the garden. Even along the river where it happened. How often does she cry, reliving those last hours? Always. Mama’s recounting is so vivid I feel I am alongside them. She and Svetlana, about my age, best of friends, inseparable as many twins. Often they dress the same, in flowered dresses. Just after a Moscow cat parade, on a bench by the river they treat on anise tea cakes rolled lightly in confectionary sugar, and their favorite drink, cranberry kisel.
“That the last time I drink it, Shelva,” Mama reinforces as she begins relating, reliving events of their last hours together. She fists her hand as if she’s breaking a delicate cup. “Never, never again will the kisel’s sweet-tart tingle my mouth. Svetlana and I, we toast. Na Zdorovi, to our health, I say to Svetlana.”
“‘And to that of the kitties who marched today,’ Svetlana says to me. ‘Dressed as catty Prussian officers in uniform and regalia; smelling of sardines, yet fresher scented than any Prussian officer; may they ninth peacefully into their coffins a long time after the Prussians do into theirs. Na Zdorovi to the fine felines.’
“We laugh so hard, mine sweet Svetty and I,” Mama says to me.
“Ah, dear Sveety!” Mama looks into my eyes! She’s seeing her cousin again.
“Remember, Svetlana? How we entwine arms and drink from the glass the other holds; then along the pier, hand in hand we walk, watching agile cranes sweep the river. We smile at their repetitive screech as they vocalize directions to their compatriots. So alike we look, Svetlana; same chestnut hair twisted as ringlets brushing over our so rosy cheeks.”
Mama gently brushes hair from my face and kisses my cheek. I feel her warm tears. “Sometimes, dear Shelva, I see much of cousin Svetty in you.”
Often Papa or Uncle Vanya are watching from afar as Mama speaks of cousin Svetlana. They knew her, knew how much Mama loved her. I see their melancholy for Mama painfully painting their faces. Sadly, they let Mama relive. What else to do?
I have memorized what Mama will say next. All I can do is let her continue, for how can I change the past?
“‘I must make water. Come into the taynyy (privy) with me my darlink cousin?’ Svetlana asks of me, wriggling to hold it in.
“This taynyy is too tiny for two, I tell her. I will wait right outside.
“Svetlana says, ‘Tell me if anyone approaches. I will leave the door ajar since it is dim inside.’
“There is the slap of water hitting the bank, crane screeches, constant grinding moans of the stretching, contracting of the planked pier – the usual riverside sounds.
“A minute passes, then five, finally, ten. I knock on the door. Svetlana? No answer. Turn the knob, push. The door, it is locked. SVETLANA! SVETLANA! Horrified, I run to find police to break it down.
“What is first thing we see, Shelva? A trap door built into the pier beneath the taynyy. From its hinges, it flaps toward the water. So quiet, so methodical, so brazen the kidnappers. They must have waited, quiet as mice in the boat. The savvy but conniving river rats that they were, they rowed swiftly away after taking my unsuspecting Svetlana – for slave purposes is what the investigators speculate. And I, just a few yards away, Shelva, never even knew they came – and left me forever, without my dear Svetlana. This is why you must always be wary mine daughter.”
Mama always maintains her composure as she tells, but when she comes to this part, she weeps, becoming hysterical, pounding her fists to her temples so hard I think she may hurt herself. I try to hold her arms to halt her. I cannot. She is too strong.
She shouts. “I should have stopped it and saved Svetty.”
As she so hauntingly repeats this impossibility, I appease with what the adults tell me to say. “There was nothing you could do, Mama. You would have been helpless as Svetlana. You too would have been taken.”
Mama’s whole body begins trembling like a slowly deflating balloon. “No! It was my fault. It was my fault.” Mama, against all rationale is helpless to think otherwise.
I begin to cry. I call. “Papa! Uncle Vanya!” Only they have strength to restrain her motions and emotions, which seem to meld into a monstrous entity that overpowers me.
They come, hold her tight, and speak gently to her– until she can be calm. “There, there. Think of only the happy times you and Svetlana had. Think of the wonderful life and family you have.”
Though this part of Mama’s life belongs to the long ago, she consoles herself with an unbridled hope that, most who know her story would call false,
“Never will I forget mine cousin, Daughter. As sure as I know the Czar will find his true place in Hell alongside the slavers who took her, one day I will see Svetlana again. Yet will we appear as twins.” Mama brushes back graying hair and rubs tears from her face.
I know neither of us wants even to think about what was Svetlana’s fate.
* * *
Often have I wished to have a friend, close, as were Mama and Svetlana. I dream of such a person, and of experiencing all they did, together.
Then, it came to me one day this past summer while Blackjack and I were prefabricating the palanquin Ragamuffin would ride in for the pussycat parade. All those glums I felt watching Mama’s strained look as she told stories of Svetlana: They vanished. Blackjack Fiction! He has become such a friend. Wait. There is more than just Blackjack who blesses me with their friendship. Kooky, but always-loving Uncle Vanya, and Brutter Ivan. And Mama and Papa. Once I become acquainted with William/Willamina, I just know he will be close as they. And of course my creature friends, Captain Polly, Ragamuffin, mine own dear feline, Alexi, and yet another friend-to-be, once I get to know the Fiction’s giant shelled creature, Turt, that Blackjack speaks so highly of.
I realize I appreciate friendship, all because of Svetlana.
I wonder sometimes, did she ever live past my age? There are times I want to know, and those others when I am afraid of what I might discover. For Mama’s sake, often I dream. It is such a satisfying dream. One in which I awaken to a knock on the door of our Moscow home. I walk to the railing in the upstairs hallway. I look down the staircase. Mama unlocks, opens the door. I hear Mama’s voice, happy-ever-after. “Svetlana. At long last, my dearest friend. Come. We shall toast with Cranberry…”
She doesn’t finish the words because their cheeks press so firmly, so tenderly, together.
Now as I think of all the friends I’ve made because of Svetlana, I know I can press cheeks with all of them just like that and sense throughout every fiber in my body the enduring joy that life provides.
Well…now there is Cecily Cobra. I have a feeling she wants to be such a friend. But she is so cunning, I’ll never know; and won’t bother to find out. Never, ever will we press together, face cheek to hood cheek.
~ ~ editor note: “Is it any wonder,” writes Shelva, in notes she made in her 80’s, “that to this day I am wary of, and look for trap doors, and hidden hideaways whenever I use a public restroom.” ~ ~
* * *
Enough of these, glums.
The parade will begin, and the audience’s cheers for the promenading pusses will be wild. Maybe Svetlana will be watching…I can but only HOPE, and try to keep Mama’s impossible dream, possible.
NEXT WEEK: GO! THE PUSSYCAT PARADE AND THE ROPE-HAIRED MAN ARRIVE
(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