by Raji Singh
Shelva’s girlhood memories of her first, most unusual, ball. It’s St. Petersberg, Russia. The 1870’s.
OPUS 3: BLINK, AND THE WHOLE WORLD BLINKS WITH YOU
Maestro Pyotr Illych escorts me down the winding marble staircase of the Winter Palace and into the vast ballroom. The alabaster rail is slippery-cool to my touch, letting me know this magical moment is not a dream.
The guests of course look at he not at me.
Nor do they heed Captain Polly perched open wing on the shoulder strap of my satin gown. Any other occasion the orange, blue, and green plumaged, golden beaked grand lady, would command twice or thrice a look. But this is the official commencement for the First International Cat Boxing Championships. Czar Alexander has opened wide his Palace to all creatures small and tall, usually two each.
Animal chitter and people chatter meld, sounding a single language.
A banner drapes from the 75 feet high ceiling proclaiming, WELCOME TO CZAR’S ARK. Two giraffes reach, in vain, for the laurel wreaths dangling from it.
Of course, thousands of cats – yowling Siamese, smash face Persians – malinger about. This is their royal affair. Gray-bearded Himalayan Mountain cats furry up the balcony parapets. Henna hued Lindian Lapeze monopolize elaborately panoplied velvet chairs. Silky Abyssinians leapfrog along the walled coats of arms. One after another of the cats turns to me, purrs, and slowly blinks. (We’ve a saying in Russia. “Revel in a blinking feline. This is how they say ‘I love you’.”)
‘All the purry love here today!’ It makes me forget my worries about not fitting in; forget my fear of the Rope Haired Man who torments my thoughts. I decide,
“Shelva, you must revel in and just enjoy this spectacle.”
I do a lot of slow blinking this day, at cats, later at the human guests. The humans observe me warily. I am the “funny girl”. Eventually though, they will smile and return the blink, the cat clause known to all my countrymen and women.
OPUS 4: AN ODD MIX OF ATTENDEES TO THE ROYAL FESTIVITY
The cats have their own caterers, hundreds of meandering turtles. Pans with milk and dishes of catnip anchor their shells. Wouldn’t it be fun if Blackjack’s Turt were here? He could be the entire buffet table for the pusses. From atop his tattooed shell – “if hollowed out, it could hold hundreds of them,” I tell myself – they could dine on sardines and study depictions of sumptuous deep ocean fish they may only dream.
Wary cat eyes heed the imposing Captain Polly, and a trained Peregrine Falcon that bides its time darting within the Palace sky.
The falcon strafes me. I duck. Its breath is rancid from a rodent meal.
It screams in my ear; tries to seize the glistening, real-looking tiara Uncle Vanya has given me for the occasion. (Or is it priceless? Never know with Uncle Vanya, his connections.) With outstretched talon, Captain Polly deflects the preying bird. With his baton, Tchaikovsky masterfully eases it away from me. It careens away and snatches a diamond bracelet from an unsuspecting guest who is helpless to give chase in the jam of people.
I adjust my hair and then the Maestro’s takes my arm. I see in one of dozens of fountains, a pair of pygmy albino elephants midst gleeful romp. They’re hardly bigger, but much whiter than the lean Russian elkhounds studying them. Answering their watery blare, from another part of the ballroom, is a lilting, almost angelic trumpeting crescendo, not one of the Maestro’s musicians. They are on a break. “That is not from another elephant,” I say.
“Indeed no, Miss Shelva. Isn’t it lovely? Surely, the seraphim weep joyously when, to the heavens, the notes ascend. It emanates from a dear friend. I shall introduce you. I am certain he will also become your friend. We shall see, shan’t we Miss Shelva.”
(Indeed, the Maestro would be right. I would grow to love “My Trumpeter!”)
Tchaikovsky leads me through a crowd of cigar-smoking mustached men toward that sound, between elegantly gowned women eyeing me resentfully – ‘Why herrrr, and not me on the arm of the handsome Maestro.’ I blink politely.
OPUS 5: SHELVA’S AWAKENING
Before now… in pictures, I have seen the Winter Palace; its opulent floor to ceiling frescoes, hundreds of train car-sized stained glass windows depicting the geographies of Russia, dozens of door leading to who-can-tell-where in the 1,500-room palace.
Endless flights of stairs seem to go everywhere-nowhere. (Uncle Vanya has warned me often, “Up them you musn’t roam, dear Niece. For the Romanoff have special areas. They guard them like a mad dog a bone. You could find yourself alone; young girl prone.”)
In dreams, Catherine the Great has even given me personal Palace tours. The tile floor is so slick the Empress and I ice skate to see all the wonders. Characters in dozens of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael paintings – soaring angels, chubby-torso nymphs, vainglorious black robed judges – they applaud our pirouettes as we turn the corners of the cavernous foyers. Great Cathy decrees, as I look up in awe at the hundreds of 15 feet tall portraits of Czars and Czarinas who ravaged and ruled over 1/6th of the world’s land mass. “My dear, very young lady: All the glories you see before you – they are the fruition of my foresight, mine alone, for Mother Russia.”
But, now, awake…never before have I imagined what I see.
In the spacious rotunda is Leonardo da Vinci’s marble Madonna, and sleeping, miraculously midst all the animal-people clatter, on each side of the Child, a gentle lamb and a red fox. The calmness this image of peace conjures, of a sharing caring Russia, quickly dissipates. My head spins as I look up briefly.
Nearly blinding are of hundreds of inverted mushroom shape, candlelit crystal chandeliers. They hang midst opulent mosaic tile frescoes on the domed ceiling; so far up one can barely see the top. Monkeys and Chimpanzees swing from the chandeliers. The continual chimes of the tapping-together crystal, each time the furry creatures grab onto them or thrusts off, is like rain ‘plipping’ into a calm waters.
The scent of the creatures’ slowly singeing fur begins to overtake the alluring bouquet of banquet – steaming fish, sizzling meats, and sweet French wines. I want to hold my nose.
Am I the only one who notices? Has the comfort of wealth and power taken away all sense from those present? Even the simple sense of smell? So that jungle life, jungle survival is the life they live, midst civilization.
I am beginning to understand why Mama and Uncle Vanya feel such revulsion, bordering on revolution for these ‘people’.
“Shelva,” you tell yourself, disgusted. “There is enough food on the tables to feed the Moscow poor for a month; room inside here for a farm to feed 100,000 starving peasants for a year, more.”
Maestro Tchaikovsky and I arrive at where dozens of guests group anxiously together. I know they must be the Czar’s entourage.
I am to be introduced to the Czar. The Czar: I cannot believe it.
Wait. I think of the peasants. My awe turns to Mama and Uncle Vanya’s revulsion. I shall give this Czar an unforgettable slice of my thoughts for him to dine on.
‘Whom do you kid, Shelva? You’ll not risk being minus your head. You will bow it, and curtsey, and do all you must, as do all.
‘NO! You will confront Alexander, as would Mama, with your truths.
‘WAIT! In your thoughts, as if Captain Polly whispers them in your ear, relaying, you hear Uncle Vanya’s warning of necessary but conniving compromise.
“You know not what staircase you mustn’t roam Shelva. So bide your time. Soon you will discover it. And then, what a grand room into which you will roam”.’
NEXT WEEK: OPUS 6: LIFELONG FRIEND OR FOE: WHICH SHALL I MEET?
©2013 Raji Singh
(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 (Kindle and trade paperback) , and Barnes and Noble.)
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