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DEFINITION OF
A RUSSIAN STRING QUARTET
BY
LOUISE DOMARATIUS
This story is a prizewinner in the New York Stories Magazine competition and is scheduled for publication in summer 2003.

My gaze traveled upward from the first row where I was sitting, and, inevitably, the first thing I saw were his shoes. They were worn and dirty, not at all the shoes you expect on a concert musician. They ought to have been black patent leather, winking like twin mirrors, and here they were with the dust of miles on them and the scuff marks of history. Even the laces were exhausted, with lighter-colored extensions knotted on. I looked further. The socks were acceptable, black and tight fitting, almost elegance itself as socks go, and the black suit could pass muster, lustered by use but not indecently shiny. The white shirt looked as if it had frequented the proper washing powders. The bow tie was just a wee bit rakishly askew, but that lent a boyish charm to his otherwise grave, worried expression. He wasn't used to these Western audiences, these grinning, Colgate-toothed Americans. He didn't know it was all right to smile.

The four shared a glance that could have been complicity or just a convention among them: "now we begin". Sasha (I learned later that he was called Sasha) dug his bow into the first bars of Koechel number 156 in G and a minuscule cloud of white rosin dust rose from the frog of his bow. The notes ran after one another like kittens at play, and, each time it was up to Sasha to take the initiative, his dark eyebrows came together, making a little furrowed place between them, while his black eyes sought the stocky cellist's opposite. His shoulders lurched forward, and the violin in his hands coughed, or sang, or wept so sweetly, that its voice, disembodied from the small wooden box, hung in the air above the chords and rhythms of the three other instruments with the grace and insistence of a siren's. One forgot the shoes. They were a mistake; everything about Sasha was aerial and translucent. There was no room for dust in his Mozart.

When it was over, the four of them stood shyly, their instruments against their chests, and endured the applause. Their faces were closed and passive, not proud or even determined like the bronze proletarian heroes in the Moscow subway. When will these musicians from behind the fallen iron curtain learn to lighten up, I wondered. I wished I had a rose with me to toss onto the stage, as they do over there. Then, perhaps he would have smiled at me.

I had my notepad with me at the ready. If I was a failed violinist, I wasn't so bad as a music critic, and tonight's assignment was the Vaslav Quartet: Mozart, Dvorak and Borodin. The Mozart was studious and then jocular, the Dvorak a Bohemian's wink at the new world, but the Borodin was sheer luminosity. He and we are of one piece, they seemed to tell us, and our souls wear the same landscape of steppe and snow and rolling Volga. I slipped backstage for my interview. I could speak Russian; that was how I got to do all the Russian recitals and concerts that came to our area. And come they did, now that the wall was down, and exit visas could be had, and profiteering impresarios hovered over the feast, forgetting, alas, to feed the musicians more often than not.

Sasha's long, brown hair was tied at the back in a tail Wolfgang Amadeus would have frowned on as unnecessarily long. His companions were more seriously classical: Vladimir, viola, balding, Nicolaï, second violin, with a shock of gray frizz over his forehead, Lev, cello, as spherical and blond as the wheat bushels of the Ukraine. They all had first prizes from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, they said. It had been a long time since they had earned a decent living with their instruments, and even this metropolitan tour would probably not bring enough to keep them in vodka. I offered a drink at my place. Vladimir crushed his cigarette underfoot and said he had to get back to the hotel. Nicolaï and Lev needed time to write home. Sasha looked at me sideways and said why not. I hadn't counted on just one, but if this one had as winning a way with a woman as he did with a violin, the part might be worth the sight-reading. I figured I was a big girl and could look out for myself.

"What's the definition of a Russian string quartet?" Sasha asked, as we walked from the backstage entrance to my car in the parking lot. I said I gave up.

"A Russian symphony orchestra on tour abroad."
I laughed, thinking he meant that four musicians were all the State could afford to send. Later, I wondered if it meant the others had all defected. I'm still not sure. We drove from the school auditorium where the quartet had played that evening to my square, three-story brick apartment building. It stands on the corner of an otherwise ordinary, lower-middle class suburban street not far from the train station. The street is complete with lawns and trees and clapboard houses of pastel colors or plain white.

"Have you seen other American homes?" I asked Sasha.
He said no, they had just come over a week ago, and, indeed, his eyes drank in everything like an eager child's at the zoo.

Outdoors, spring in New Jersey streets smells poignantly of freshly-mown grass. The fragrance lingers even in the evening. Inside, the floorboards of my 1950's apartment, warmed by sunlight during the day, exhale their own woody sweetness and promise of summer heat to come. There is no elevator at 56 Schoolhouse Street; the three flights are easy to negotiate and the landings scrupulously clean. Not planning on company, I hadn't tidied anything, but my place is basically presentable, and I am quite proud of it. Sasha took in the love seat with its jumble of patchwork cushions, the glass coffee table where my mug still sat, my desk with the computer screen lit up, the bookshelves draped with trailing ivy plants, and my favorite prints, posters and foreign calendars on the wall.

"This place is all for you alone?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, pointing out that I also had a bedroom, kitchen and full bathroom. He said no more, and I supposed he was thinking a family of four would be happy to have that much space where he came from. He noticed my antique wooden music stand in the corner with the Meditation from Thaïs on it for show. It was the only piece I had ever successfully memorized. " You play...?"

"Seven years of violin lessons," I said. "And I can hardly say so. But I do wish I could. You...uh, you give lessons, perhaps?"

He shrugged. "I could. You'd have to practice."

"Naturally!"

He looked at me curiously. "Show me what you know!"

"What about the vodka?"

"The vodka too. With pleasure."

He took the little glass reverently in his hands and looked at me. He wanted to see my violin. I lifted it from the plush and unwound the old flower-print scarf that swathed its warm, cherry-colored body. Sasha pressed his nose against the " f " holes and breathed deeply. Then he held its satiny curves at a distance and admired the handiwork.
"Very fine. This is an American violin?"

"Italian. Contemporary. It's a Rosadoni. A man from Como. It was a present from my parents, who hoped for more. I call it ' Rosi.' I guess that's silly, but it's like a person to me."

"And the tone?"

"Try it for yourself!"

He attached the shoulder pad, tightened the bow and tuned the four strings. Then he shut his eyes and began with Thaïs. My poor orphaned instrument had finally found a home.

"Your neighbors maybe are trying to sleep?"

"They might be," I admitted. "Or, if they're awake, they'll be marveling at the progress I've made."

"Let me just see if your position is correct," Sasha said, and I obediently set the violin under my chin and lifted my left arm. From behind me, he gently adjusted the curve of my left hand over the fingerboard.

"With your permission, " he said, amused, touching my fingers with his own slender ones. "And you mustn't hang onto your bow for dear life that way. Relax! Supple the muscles!"

He held my right hand gently and shook it. His black eyes were laughing at me.

"I thought Russians were mostly blond," I said. "Where did you get those almond eyes?"

"I'm part Tatar," he said. "And Jewish and Gypsy. The last two ingredients make the best violinists."

He was so close to me, I could smell the freshly-laundered cotton of his dress shirt. "I think you'll be a good student," he added.

I said I would try. He wouldn't let me drive him to his little hotel in the town center but said he had to walk, to take in as much of suburban New Jersey as he could. They would be leaving for New York City and a series of gigs in a couple of days. The City was only half an hour's train ride away. He would be back, and I had better start by reviewing Sevcik.

Sasha used "Rosi" now in concert. His Soviet-period fiddle was a cigar-box, he said, but the violin that vibrated the best to his touch was my own body. He gave me lessons in more than music during his American April. Scales before the music stand, others in my small summery-smelling bedroom, and the compliance of my bowing muscles seemed directly proportionate to the degree of pleasure that preceded. He wouldn't call me Kathy with that impossible " th " in the middle but every manner of Russian diminutive from Katia to Katinka to Katiusha. I felt I belonged in the meanders of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, where the characters appear to change names every few pages. His was Alexander Petrovich Ivanov, but the third syllable, the "sand" of his first name, made "Sasha." He wouldn't tell me much about what he had done at home other than describe the fight for your life that a conservatory prize means in Moscow. The ash-blond woman with the broad, Slavic cheek-bones, on the slightly beaten photograph in his wallet, was, he said, his sister Irina. The two children were his niece and nephew, Tania and Kostia.

"There's no resemblance between you and Irina," I protested.

"She's not a natural blond," was all he said.

" But the children look a little like you. Those oblique eyes."

He shrugged.

"Why don't we see Irina's husband?"

"He was behind the camera."

I believed him because I wanted to, but the picture haunted me.

Midsummer in lower Manhattan. The little park where the concert was to be held was already filled with sound; bugs hidden in the foliage, indefatigably scraping the tiny bows of their outer wings, children running after a half-deflated beach ball in a far corner, the hum and occasional honking of traffic passing on the street beyond the heavy curtain of trees. Ears shut, you could believe you were in a world apart, but open them again, and the city filtered back to you, playing its own chaotic, buzzing song. The black, sun-soaked asphalt underfoot warmed the soles of your sandals, and the sun took forever to lower its hot, weary body beneath the line of the trees. Nicolaï, Vladimir, Lev and Sasha, instruments in hand, passed by the slatted wooden chair where I sat at the edge of the front row, bowed crisply and took their places on the four waiting seats. New York temperatures had made them drop ties and jackets, and the collars of their white shirts were informally open. Their shoes were new. That meaningful glance again, and Borodin soared towards the treetops, meeting the final sun rays and a pigeon as it took off, wings beating black against the backdrop of gray, humid sky.

"I know a French place, a bistro in the East Village," I said.

They nodded; they had funds now, and, after the exhilaration of applause, an anonymous hotel room would be a let-down. Night stuck to our skins like damp, black velvet. Over a sweating, balloon-shaped glass of cool, dry white wine, Lev extracted from his pocket one of those funny, Soviet-style envelopes with kuda (where to) and komu (to whom) printed near the top, right under the stamp, with more lines directly underneath for the name and address of the sender. He drew two shiny identity photos from it, two fair, moon-faced children, a boy and a girl.

"God, how I miss them," he said, mopping his forehead. "Nastia's taken first prize for her level in harp this year at the Academy, and Grigory begins the bass viol in the fall."

The little girl wore a huge, blue bow cocked on one side of her blond bowl-cut. I thought Grigory looked a bit young and defenseless to be confronting a bass viol.

"What pictures have you to show us?" I asked Sasha a bit coyly, I must admit, but his look was unfathomable, unconcerned.

"No one writes me," he said. "I haven't the luck of my cohorts."

Nicolaï and Vladimir exchanged glances. At any rate, I thought they exchanged glances. That they were meaningful ones is more than I could vouch for.

Sasha returned to New Jersey with me on the last train. The air-conditioning was turned up too high, and I shivered next to him. He didn't put his arm around me, and that was when I started to nag him. About his life in Russia. Past girl-friends. His niece and nephew. I tried to avoid the name of Irina, but it wormed its way in like a wiggling belly-dancer between the lines the New Jersey Transit posted obsessively in front of us in bright green, electronic lettering: Be considerate of other riders. Speak softly.

"Sasha," I whispered, "how many women have you had?"

"Katia, my heart, why do Americans always think in terms of quantity?"

"I'm sorry."

Please keep feet off seats.

Someone's cell phone tootled its four-note jingle across the aisle.

"Hey, Edie, would you believe it, I got three answers to my ad," a man's voice answered. "I met the first one last night."

Edie must have said something; there was a pause.

"...She owns her house, has an Alfa Romeo. But listen, this is just between you and I..."

His voice filled the entire, sleepy train car. The "you and I" made me wince.

"Physically, she's not my type." Two passengers opposite smirked.

Save money, buy monthly tickets.

"Does Irina work?" I couldn't help myself.

The conductor reached us and snapped with a swift, rabid hand at our strip-like tickets with his puncher, making holes in an enigmatic myriad of places. His wrist movements were as deft as Sasha's. Occupational hazard: tendinitis, I couldn't help thinking. I hoped he wasn't an amateur musician.

"My sister?," Sasha replied. "Yes, she's a salesgirl." Nothing more.

"And your brother-in-law?"

He frowned slightly. "You're from the CIA, milaia, maybe?"

Do not ride in the vestibule.

"Oh, Sasha, I just want to know about you, about your life..."

Suddenly he noticed the goose bumps on my bare arms and put his new jacket over the front of my light summer dress.

"No sense of nuance in this place." He shook his head. "Where are the dynamics? Hot as hell or cold as the North Pole. Same for everything else."

I felt cowed. I huddled behind the dark worsted.

Never get on or off a moving train.

He glanced up at the panel. "and they take people for bumbling idiots. Unless it's that they're afraid of lawsuits. For not warning you or something." I held my tongue. I simply noticed how his complexion had gone from eastern European pasty to healthy American tan on a good diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, red meat and fish, how handsome he looked in his new clothes, remembered how miraculous he sounded when he played my Rosadoni. He must love it here. He had to.

In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Is there anything more frightening than a telephone that startles you out of quiet sleep? Only urgent, bad news comes at night. Or, with luck, wrong numbers.
"Hello?" I forced out a small, scratchy voice, my heart pounding, and a flood of apologetic Russian came from the other end. The connection was clear. I would have thought one of the other quartet members was calling, except that I was hearing a woman's voice.
" Minutochka," I said. I handed the receiver to Sasha.
I heard him say " Slushaï, Ira! " several times, and a chill raised the light down on my forearms despite the hot summer night. He was speaking to Irina. The whirring of the little electric fan blotted out most of it from me. Sasha hated air conditioning: "phony, canned atmosphere," he said. "Fake settings here, fake sophistication, even fake air."

When he had placed the phone back in its wall cradle, he immediately started pulling on trousers, shirt, socks and shoes.

"You're leaving?"

He kissed me. " My sister needs me. It's urgent, Katiusha. I'm sorry. I want to get the first plane."

"But what about your concert dates?"

"The others will figure something out."

"Is she ill? Hurt?"

"No, no, nothing like that. Too long to explain. Can I use your phone to call a taxi?"

"Sasha, you can use anything of mine." I heard him ask to be driven to Kennedy. A hundred dollars' worth of taxi. Did he realize that? He must have been in a hurry indeed.

In his haste, Sasha had grabbed a violin, his own. "Rosi," in its black, professional-looking rectangular case, sulked in a corner of the room, not far from the ashtray that held Sasha's cigarette butts. Everyone smoked in Russia, Sasha had told me.

"And the life expectancy is only about sixty for men," I'd added, a tad self-righteous.

"Life expectancy also means you expect something from life," he'd said.

"When you haven't got that, you live for the present moment. You smoke, you drink, and, if you're lucky, you forget."

With all my heart I hoped he had found something to expect here. Although I hated the smell of cold tobacco, I took a butt and put it between my lips. It was all that was left to me now of Sasha.

Five days passed and still Sasha did not call. His companions billed themselves the N... Chamber Ensemble, and their repertoire changed. Ex-Soviet quartet down now to ex-Soviet trio, I thought ruefully. They'd found a pianist through some underground channel that secretes Russian musicians on demand, and tonight there would be Beethoven's Archduke. Vladimir, the violist, would sit that one out. I was next to him, my question burning in my mind, keeping me from listening. The exquisite yearnings of the poco piu adagio wafted past me, background music to some other world. After the concert, they smiled at me, comprehending my dismay but saying nothing.

"He called you?" I finally asked. Lev nodded yes.

"He had to go back for Irina?"

"Yes, for Irina's sake. She needed him." I thought he looked chagrined.

"His wife, Irina, is that it? And no one wants to tell me?" I felt wretched and abandoned and imagined they were feeling sorry for me. Nicolaï's gray eyebrows lifted.

"Sasha hasn't got a wife," he said. "Is that what you thought? That Irina was his wife? That he was lying to you about her?"

"Yes." Tears rose to my eyes in spite of myself. I felt ashamed and foolish.

"Tell her. It won't hurt," Lev said.

"Irina's husband is something of a petty Mafia member," Nicolaï said, his voice quiet. I felt inundated with relief. The problem was elsewhere. It wasn't with Sasha, with another woman. Irina's husband could have been king of the dons for all I cared.

"He got himself into a nasty lot of trouble these past few days. Stole the car of a high functionary, then had an accident with it. He smashed it up all by himself, no other casualties."

"Was he killed?" I ventured.

" No, but he was badly messed up. Got away from the scene of the accident all right, but he collapsed later. Irina thought there was internal bleeding when she called Sasha that night."

"Why didn't she just call a doctor? An ambulance?"

"Because they'd have figured it out, that he was the one. Prison terms are long and harsh in our country, Kathy. " He pronounced it Kat-sea." And if they'd realized he was the culprit, then they probably wouldn't have gone too far out of their way to get him medical aid anyway."

"Good Lord, but he has children."

"No mortal good to them in prison, Kat-sea."

"Do you know if he's still alive? If Sasha will be back?"

"No." They looked embarrassed, as if somehow it was their fault I'd lost Sasha.

"He'll probably call you soon, or write you. When this blows over."

"Yes, soon. I'm sure," I said. My voice quavered, and I was sure of nothing at all.

I would take "Rosi" out of its case and stroke its varnish. I sought some vibration left over from Sasha's fingertips on the ebony fingerboard, but for me, the bow would only elicit wails. I pressed my left cheek into the hollow of the chin rest and tried to imagine it was his shoulder I felt, horizontal and slightly bony. Then I would put the instrument back to bed in the sturdy, coffin-like box, rubbing the excess rosin from the strings below the bridge with a little square of ancient cotton, soft as silk from wear. Time passed, but none of us heard anything from Sasha. The ringing of the phone rebounded against the walls of his empty flat, and no one knew where Irina lived. I covered a series of piano recitals and found them despicable. Pounders, they were, those pianists, hammering, vengeful beings. Chopin and Liszt gave me headaches.

Then one day the kitschy Russian envelope was for me. The flimsy paper was decorated on the left with the naïve print of a tabby cat, complete with pink ribbon around its neck. "The European short-hair": I deciphered the capital Cyrillic letters. On the right were the names and addresses: mine, then his beneath. I willed myself not to open it before I was upstairs, before I had shut the door behind me. I made myself wait, because as long as I waited, I could continue to hope, hope to find inside the date of his return. I scanned the Cyrillic, but no dates caught my eye. I sat down. I would read it syllable by foreign syllable, in order.

"My Katiusha" it began. That was my favorite nickname, the same one as in the folk song about the girl who waits for her beloved soldier beneath the flowering pear and apple trees. First he explained about Irina, about how dreadful it had been for her to lose her husband, to see him wither and die before her own, helpless eyes, like a plant under a curse. The doctor had written "heart failure" on the death certificate. She had paid him not to probe too deeply. The children had been devastated, and they clung to Sasha. I was filled with horror, reading this. He would come back to me, I was sure now. His country was full of inhumanity and corruption. He knew that, didn't he? I read on:
"And now, Katiusha, as summer draws to an end, the woods are filled with the sweetest smelling loam ever, and we go early in the morning with large wicker baskets on our arms. When we come home, the sun is hot and our baskets are filled. Irina cooks the mushrooms and fills enough jars with them for the entire winter. She is putting up purple plums, now, too, and the other day the whole simmering copper pot of them boiled over. The violet carpet in front of the stove was fine enough for a bishop, but rather a sticky mess to clean up. Never fear, the plums are plentiful, and we will have compote galore.

I saw the most beautiful fur chapka for you at the marketplace this morning. They sell them for about eighty of your dollars, but if you bargain astutely, you can do better than that. My Katiusha, when will you come to me? I miss you, I miss holding you in my arms. I have thought about nothing else since I had to leave you so suddenly. I have classes now at the local music school and private lessons for a few who can afford them. Believe it or not, I even give private English lessons. My pupils are so impressed with my 'American' accent! When you come, I feel sure we can get you a teaching position at the normal school here. They do so need to train teachers of English."

Tears welled in my eyes. Not once did he mention returning to America. Only loam and mushrooms and purple plums. And for me, that would be...what, exactly? Fragrant, freshly-cut grass, autumn leaves crisp underfoot or burning in small, pungent pyres, cinnamon-spiced cider and doughnuts? I could make a long list. I even thought to reach for a piece of paper. As I did, my gaze rested on "Rosi", docile and mute in its corner.

I lugged my violin in its elaborate wrapping to the post-office. I asked about insurance, filled in all the forms. In our little town, packages to Russia are rare; I caused quite a stir among the personnel. Once everything was worked out, and "Rosi " was on its cosmopolitan way, from Italy to America to Russia, I walked the few blocks to catch the Manhattan train. A wind quintet from Tbilisi was playing that evening, and I was to do the review. I lifted my eyes to the unavoidable electronic panel at the end of the car, to its crystalline, green announcement : Last station - New York Penn, I read.

© Louise Domaratius, 2002.

 


Author Biography

Louise Domaratius is an American writer and teacher living in France. A summa cum laude graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, she first studied in France on a Fulbright Scholarship. She holds a Maîtrise de Lettres Modernes from the Université d'Aix-en-Provence, and an Agrégation d'Anglais. She is an award-winning short story author. Her debut novel, Gadji, was published in June 2002 by Quality Words in Print.


Native Shore Fiction - for the short story

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Native Shore Fiction - Curlew
We look forward to seeing short stories from every writer's native shore. It does not matter if you have never seen the sea and breathe only inland waves of wheat or rye ~or big city fumes~ we'd like you to share your innermost native shore with us.
Along with our Storycove Flash Fiction (a story of fewer than 500 words) we are pleased to offer to our newest department for standard length short stories (500-4000 words). To launch this department, we have selected a new symbol, a rare shorebird known as the slim-billed curlew. Like a great short story, this bird is unique.



Call for Fiction: The reading period for The TenTen Fiction Competition runs from May 1 to the deadline of July 1. The winner will be published in our Native Shore Fiction department in the autumn edition of Word Smitten.

The prize for best short story is $1,010.00 was awarded in the late summer. This year's judge for the contest was author Noy Holland, UMASS professor and head of their MFA writing program. Very Important: Read the guidelines and enter your short story: GUIDELINES for The TenTen.

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