Each day, every hour
I habitually follow in my thoughts,
Trying to guess from their number
The year which brings my death
--A. Pushkin, 1837.
It is not clear what the morning looked like. There are some who once remembered, but they are dead, and others believe that they remember, but they have just stumbled out of bed, and are still somewhat groggy. Let us not worry too much about them; we have other concerns, and will let ourselves trust that our memory is lucid. It is not clear what the morning looked like, except that it was unseasonably warm for February, and voices floated through the crisp fog sloughing off of the surface of the river. There, in a clearing, stands an obelisk, marking the spot where, years before, a duel had taken place. The clearing has been claimed by the State as a park, and the inhabitants of the nearby apartment buildings are free to roam about the grounds, provided they do not destroy any property belonging to the public. On the morning in question, this unseasonably warm morning, fog softening the edges of the leafless trees, Pushkin suddenly opened his eyes and spoke a single word.
On the evening of the Imperial Ball, he walked briskly across the Aleksandr Nevsky, pausing at the center to look over the edge into the water below. The liquid darkness shifted and gleamed like the edge of a knife, seeming to pulsate with a secret energy, with obsolete languages and codes. Pushkin pushed his tongue forward, through his lips and into the biting air. He allowed a thin stream of spittle to slip out of the back of his throat and suspended it from the tip of his tongue, balanced it even, between the tongue and the river. In this taut instant of connection with the water, he noticed the low moon reflected on the surface, rippling with orange light, and then folded behind quickly moving clouds.
Pushkin thought he remembered the voices that had seeped into his apartment. Voices that sounded like music and static and years from now he might understand them, but for now they were only flickering shadows. He would shut his eyes against the echoes, which multiplied against the cheap tile and concrete. There was muttering: usurers have overrun the land and the landlady lectured potential renters please you be careful, considerate of the others, tenants I mean, focus on walking real slowly, heel to toenail, on the floors, thin floors, easy to hear steps, creaking, what have you, on the ceiling, drive you crazy through the night if you hear too much of it, and don't bring girls up those stairs, high heels and whatnot, and please don't use an ice pick as the sound carries and sets my husband on edge clarifying the character of the apartment building so that the renter's character could be modified appropriately.
And in between and around, the sound of bulldozers and the constant lap of construction, cinder colored boxes framing the view from every window. A new fueling station on every corner. Initiation of service systems on the basis of magnetic plastic cards and fuel coupons allowing refueling complexes to exemplify mass service and target the needs of the citizens. Networks of partner gas stations and wholesale deliveries of light and dark mineral oil to private and state enterprises. Urgent cargos and passengers steamed to distant points.
Out of this din sentences would unfold, words hovering behind Pushkin's eyes, who, squinting, would inflate his cheeks with air and push them onto paper with his breath.
Tatyana arrived at the ambassador's home significantly before Pushkin. Hurry. It's time. Hurry, Pushkin. He had stayed in the apartment for several hours beyond the time specified on the invitation; the rich cream sauce he had eaten at the luncheon had caused his belly to swell up with gas, and it took a considerable amount of effort to keep from relieving himself in front of his wife. To add to his distress, at lunch Tatyana had made a comment about the thickness of his beard. He lay curled up on his side as the light turned from orange to blue, clutching the ivory handle of his favorite hairbrush.
When he walked hesitantly into Baron Heeckaren's estate house, she was sitting in the far drawing room opposite d'Anthes, whose own beard was dazzling in its symmetry and sheen. Her head was tilted sharply to the left, her wrist drolly draped against the back of the settee. She didn't look in his direction as he entered the room, her gaze fixed in front of her, although he noticed a slight whitening of the knuckles in her right hand.
Later that evening, as they were dressing for bed, she told him that she would be leaving for the country for a month. He turned towards her as she took down her hair, and caught her eye reflected in the mirror. Her cheeks were white with powder, and he quickly looked away.
Yesterday afternoon Yevgeny Matviyenko appeared without notice at the door, clutching a tin box under his arm. Yevgeny was well known among aristocratic society as much for his fine collection of Italian china as for his interest in French ambassadors' wives. His fine beard and delicate step had left him breathless with dance partners on many a night. As the winter sun faded into pale half-light, he unfolded the box in Pushkin's drawing room. Its hinged top swung open, displaying a dark interior glinting with glass and metal. Let in some more light, Pushkin. There needs to be more light. And so Pushkin opened the shutters farther, the shadows of the room merging with the sky to form an elegant gray scale. Pushkin turned back towards the room, where his friend was placing an orange (an anonymous gift for Tatyana stolen from her room that morning while she slept) before the glass lens of the box. He stroked the tortoise-shell finish of the box with his middle finger. Look in here Pushkin. Right in here. It's a box for drawing Pushkin. Copying things. No, you won't believe this. Pushkin hesitantly placed his eyes against the top of the box, the metal cold against his forehead, and pulled the black cloth over his head.
In the sudden rush of darkness, Pushkin felt as though he were pulled inside of the box, his body inert and rid of its flatulence, its hairlessness. His body became a force funneled through his eyes, jostling against mirrors, and slipping into the orange which had inserted itself (reversed and upside down) into his field of vision. His mouth briefly tasted the word in French -- l'orange -- smoothed its surface, a word that seemed to mock his poor upbringing. But there, floating in a dark pool before his eyes, was the orange. He could see it, steady and assured, unattainable in its liquid precision, containing all possible futures in its luminescent surface. He pressed his palm against the table top, feeling the slight imperfections of its surface. It's for drawing Pushkin. I brought tissues for tracing. So you can make exact copies of anything. Just as you see it. Right in front of your eyes.
And then Pushkin knew: there are some things too harrowing in their awfulness, which cannot be looked on, except through some mechanical device, such as a scope, or radio. These things are such that they become, in their limitation, objects, landscapes, tunnels, futures, faces of god. Pushkin pulled his head up from the camera, looking toward the open window with his own face shining.
After losing all of the money in his purse during a night of card playing at Baron Heeckaren's summer home, Pushkin walked along the edge of the Neva in the early morning darkness, looking for stones to throw. It was a habit he had developed in his youth; he had often carried an armful of stones back to his room at Tsarskoye Selo and constructed a pile beside his bed. Selecting stones that would fit easily into the palm of his hand became the secondary focus of his studies, and he would often spend hours before the winter snows came wandering the riverbanks looking for jagged and balanced rocks. When he found himself unable to complete a sestina or epigram, he would hurl stones out of his window, some of them striking the plastered wall of his room with a dull scorched sound.
On this particular evening, the clouds covered the moon and a ruthless wind from the Gulf of Finland sliced at his exposed skin. He pulled his scarf closer around his neck. He briefly thought of crushing Tatyana's skull with a rock during her afternoon nap, and began looking for a suitable stone among the many strewn along the riverbank.
Pushkin read a sentence that interested him for reasons he could not determine. For centuries there have been places where what is seen is only the inside. Pushkin remembered that he had names for these places: cell, crypt, church, theater, study, camera. He continued writing the list late into the night.
Pushkin stubbed his toe on the protruding foot of the French end table. As the pain surged up his leg, his synapses registered a brief white light, and he had a sudden vision: There was a man who had lived his life, treacherously, with Another balanced on his head. They had grown so. Like so. Just so. Each hair had entwined itself with its opposite on the other's head. In the interest of good taste, both had dyed their hair a neutral brown (originally their hair had been blonde and red, respectively).
These men lived lives parallel to each other, often undertaking the same tasks: writing novels, or books of prose at any rate, which were never read (although commentary on these books was studied throughout the land). The books were considered impenetrable, as texts often overlapped, reversed, and folded into themselves. Mothers teaching their children would often describe reading them as ''combing the sea" or "listening for footsteps."
On a cold winter morning in February, the men, who had become brothers, were executed for treason by a very good firing squad (the sharpest in their division), in front of a very good wall, leaving behind a death that was pronounced "very good" by all who had witnessed it. There are others, however, who maintain that they drowned in a flood, unable to choose a direction in which to swim.
The trademark was a stylized combination of the letters B and T written in scarlet. The construction on the station was to begin in one week; already there was a sign erected on the edge of the park, which clearly and hopefully set the red trademark against a crisp white background. Valentina Matviyenko pulled his wool overcoat closer to his bulky frame. His knees ached. He longed to leave the city and go ice fishing on the Neva, but instead, he walked through the park one more time before heading towards Mariinsky Palace, and the waiting city council. The park, with its anachronistic obelisk marking the spot where most remember the duel taking place, was a small thing, but small things mattered in a city trying to misremember a recent past cast in concrete. Balt Trade was one of any number of fuel companies formed in the vacuum of the early 1990s, companies that promised to provide modern fueling complexes with all kinds of services from cafe to car wash. The idea of building a Balt Trade gas station between metro stations Pionerskaya and Chyornaya Rechka appeared more than a year ago; it had, in fact, appeared on Matviyenko's desk. In July the city's investment and tender commission gave Balt Trade a building permit for the station. This permit, secured in a flurry of luncheons and personal gifts, called for the leveling of no more than half of the park, and in a last minute addendum, it was decided that the station would be separated from the park by a short white fence.
The falling snow stung Matviyenko's eyes, so he closed them, trying to imagine the trees edged by the halogen light of the fueling complex and the shifting headlamps of cars. His foot caught on a rock, and his balance shifted, his body weightless in the air.
Pushkin woke with a start, a book of Abyssinian history pressing against his chest, tongue swollen and feet blue. His head felt lighter. The room was filled only with the sound of heavy breathing, breath disappearing in meager puffs. He brushed at his face with the back of his hand, hoping that somehow his beard had grown fuller during the night. He heard Tatyana stirring in the next room, soft whimpering lacing the cold air. Someone had opened the window; snow arranged itself into glyphs on the stone floor. He lifted his body into a sitting position, pulling the fur closer to his neck. His eyes could see little, only folds of blue shadow. But memory filled in where sight left off, and he mentally compiled an inventory of objects in his room: the single painting hanging on the wall, a gift from Rublyev; writing desk, secure and dark in its oak-ness, the letter resting on top of the usual correspondence; wool suit draped over a chair, in its pocket a folded envelope; his best leather boots; the water mark on the wall from the great flood; the letter.
His body was shaking under the heavy furs. Hurry, Pushkin. Hurry. There's no time. He saw the waters rising, the Neva rushing through the window, bed and desk and letter floating into the street, paper dissolving, limbs cased in ice, knuckles white, wet streetlight vapor, inked words flowing into each other, glacial heartbeat, feet made of stone, his body swept with 10,000 others into the grey vastness of the sea.
Pushkin could not hear the sudden silence in the room, as his ears were filled with the roar of coursing blood. He spoke a single word, in the hopes of waking his sleeping wife. He spoke a single word, which echoed once, and abruptly vanished.