An Experimental Novel: Fred Discovers, to Everyone’s Relief, that Art is Not His Thing

“After many a summer we dyed the swan,” said the Countess Alexyovna, “but it didn’t do much good.”

Count Streltzy said nothing. In three days the Kerensky government would fall and all of Russia would be under Bolshevik rule. In the cherry orchard the blossoms dropped, sadly. Drop, drop, drop, they dropped. Alas!

“What color?” asked little Gritchka impulsively.

“What?” asked the Countess, lost in her sorrow.

“The swan, Mommy. What color?”

“Oh, that. Puce, I think. Or pimento.”

Pablo hitched up his greasy cartridge belt and took a piece of Sauterne cheese from his holster. The cheese was covered with tallow. The Spanish Civil War was going badly. Pablo was on leave from the Catalan front. Spaniards have no regard for chronology.

Count Streltzy said nothing.

“That thou grow tall and straight, little one,” said Pablo to Gritchka, “and bear many children, sound of foot. That thou, for whom the Belle Toes….”

“Is that how they talk in Spain?” Gritchka asked. “Is that Spanish?”

Pablo cleaned the cheese with a dirty thumbnail and flicked the tallow to Hannibal, Petrushka’s marmoset.

“No. We picked it up from Hemingway. That was before the Falangistas took Halavah.”

Baron Kalashnikov was 47 but still a child because of encephalitis. He shouted excitedly, “Tell us more, Uncle Pablo. And was it dangerous?”

“In those years,” said Pablo with the dispassion of a man who still has trench-mortar fragments in his leg, “we lived in a wineskin. There was the White Russian, Albinovitch, and the priest, and the cheese. And the corporal with the cast in his eye said, ‘That thou blow thy bridges, Pablo. The Little Mule died of his wounds today. That thou blow thy bridges.'”

The petals drifted down, the pale sad butterflies of foreshadowed glimmerings. Count Streltzy stirred restlessly, but said nothing. Ivanitch scratched. Rain fell torrentially around the pavilion.

“It’s the monsoon,” said the Empress Dowager. “Now the Yangtze will flood. The jade carvings will wash to the sea, and form a delta.”

“Still,” mused Countess Alexyovna, “our trunks will get to New York, and Gritchka with them. What’s the name of the ship?”

“The Titanic,” Petrovitch Petrovitch muttered. “It leaves Moscow on the eighth.”

He continued leafing through Talleyrand’s Anabasis, by Faulkner. Petrovitch Petrovitch was an intense young intellectual of the modern sort, in whose eyes a bitter gleam burned brightly, a beacon beckoning to all who would listen. He yearned to die on the barricades, but there were none in the orchard.

The wind rustled through the cherry trees like the memory of forgotten reminiscences. It made no impression on Prince Mishkin, who was knitting a samovar. He had tuberculosis, as all Russians do.

He said, “As the day in its dawning, so the sands in their shiftings, the blossoms in their droppings. There is a timeless, despondent foreboding in black dreams of a bygone day. Do you sense it? Except perhaps in New Jersey.”

Hannibal the marmoset began playing with Count Streltzy’s boot laces, but the Count seemed not to notice. He said nothing.

Countess Alexyovna explained, “In New York, they say, the streets are paved with gold. We will have a kiosk on Atlantic Avenue, and sell borscht and beet soup. The marmoset will sit on the roof and eat pigeons. The Empress Dowager will smoke opium and read palms.”

“Don’t forget the tea leaves. I want to smoke them too,” said the Empress.

Gandhi looked up from the notes for the play he was writing and interjected in his thin, sere voice, “Ah.”

The wisdom of the orient was contained in the simple remark.

Pablo said, “That there are many bridges in New York. That we shall blow them. For in that year we lived in a culvert, Maria and the Rabbit and I, with the priest and the cheese. The culvert smelled of man sweat and woman sweat and Rabbit sweat, and it was good. The earth was brown and the grass was green. The sky was blue and the water was wet.”

Count Streltzy said nothing.

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