Part One: Poison
Chapter I: In an island dacha
Raisa Ivanovna Meyer was sitting on the veranda of a rented dacha, listening to distant music from a pleasure boat as it filtered through successive screens of foliage. The notes that came to her were fragmented, barely music, but they compelled her attention more than the novel she had been drowsing over. She placed the book down on the marble table and looked up.
She was irritated, rather than soothed, by the broken strains. If only she could place the tune, then she could relax, and the music would have fulfilled its promise. But it set her nerves on edge, and the wafts of nostalgia that it carried with it only depressed her. Sometimes it seemed to be getting closer, clarifying into something almost recognisable, but immediately it would again recede and disintegrate. Raisa looked at her son, Grisha, as he leant over the circular table, utterly absorbed in the activity of copying the Daily Events section of The Voice. The neatness, indeed the beauty, of Grisha's script provoked a surge of feeling in his mother: something fiercer, more complicated than pride. Pride was something she could never allow herself. But if she could not be wholly proud of Grisha, she would not be ashamed of him either. So they took their place on the front veranda, and Raisa met the questioning gazes of any passers-by with silent defiance.
Grisha's pen moved swiftly, the letter forming with seemingly mechanical perfection. The lines ran true and straight, although the paper was not ruled. It was as if he was painting, not writing, the characters. There was something wonderful in her son's obsession. It struck her at times as a blessing: a gift, truly, despite its pointlessness. The nib of the pen made little noises of contentment, chuckling scratches, as the ink flowed from it onto the surface of the paper. The absorption in his face frightened her. It was something she could never understand. What it said to her was that his devotion to this task was greater than any other feeling he was capable of. She knew that he needed her; that went without saying. And there were moments when only her clinging embrace was capable of calming and containing him. But this activity, the repeated copying of passages from the day's newspaper, was the only thing he went to voluntarily. He chose this over her, and she was jealous of it.
Of course, it was better that he was occupied and quiet than upset in any way, and so most of the time she left him to it. There had been days when she insisted on his laying down his pen to accompany her on a walk along the linden avenue to the orchard. Sometimes he went peaceably, sometimes there were scenes. The greater his agitation, the more determined she would be that he should go with her. Why did she do it? She could not imagine whatever possessed her to initiate these storms. She wondered at her own perversity. Part of it she recognised as a craving for humiliation. But she had no right, really, to parade her son, like the banner of her wickedness. She felt a rush of shame. As it always did, it came down to her shame. Once she had arrived at that, everything fitted into place, and she realised she could have no complaints. Whatever happened, she could not complain.
This was where she belonged, here on the veranda with Grisha. He was her son, the son she deserved, the son she would always accept without question. She looked out along the dusty road. A slight, stooped figure in a dark green civil service coat and cap was walking towards the dacha, carrying a black bag in one hand and a slim box, rapped in colourful paper, in the other.
The music from the pleasure boat changed. It became simply the clashing of a cymbal and the boom of a bass drum. There was no hope now of melody.
Grisha did not look up, not even at his father's footsteps on the veranda.
Excerpted from A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) June, 2008.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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