All night until the dawn I’ve smelt a fire burning the forest. Yet each time I push aside the curtain, there is no flame or glowing ember. Nothing to startle the birds out of their slumber. As though a giant rod, seething with heat, had pushed up into my cavity. Burning invisible. I am fearful of this malady, dear Petrov. This smell of burnt destruction. Lodged in my sense memory as bitter root. Or, worse. The cause of liver dysfunction, some claim, is a bitterness that will not quell. Why I am reminded of the liver is an oddity. After supper last night you sat and smoked and swore at rivals. They, across the continent, doing much the same, I expect. It is this rivalry of men. It disposes of women and children without effort. Pitched overboard into a black sea when they become tiresome, unnecessary.
It is a scene of growing things pushing through the floorboards. I thought I had become locked in a dream. People do get stuck in dreams, dear Petrov. They might take centuries to emerge. Yet here you are, complacent in your chair. Quietly consuming the vodka. When I sit across from you, through miles of twisted vine and the weeds containing yellow pods, I only see a drift of smoke from your pipe. Resting. On its side on a red plate. When I ask where this red plate comes from, since I own not a single red plate, you merely get a twinkle in your eyes. Can this be fair? Shouldn’t a woman know every plate and piece of cutlery stored in her cupboards? I know very little of my life. The weeds with their yellow pods seem to be mocking me. They have a future, about to burst in this room.
Pebbles have a way of lodging in my stockings. It seems so impossible. My skirts nearly trail the ground and my shoes are high with button hooks. Dear Petrov, I can be out walking on a perfectly good day. The sun shining cold and I am braced for it. When seemingly out of nowhere a pebble slips under the softest part of my foot. Forcing me to walk slower. Gingerly. And sometimes to stop. I gaze around. It might be trees, or the meadow, the river, or just a path. Of course I cannot remove my stockings so I proceed with caution. Assuring myself I’ll soon be safely home. Dear Petrov, I have never felt safe at home. Even when the sun shines hot and bright. There is always the chance for fever.
The problems of summer are their own making, you said. But now is another time and I am still confused. That day we strolled through gardens. So dry you said they resembled Egypt. I have only seen Egypt in books. I asked did you travel up the sides of pyramids and this made you laugh. I tugged your sleeve to know. There are things a woman will never know. The stars. And of course the moon knows everything. Being the keeper of all secrets. This I don’t reveal because you will not tell your part. I long to know about the steps, dear Petrov. Must the way be slow like up sheer rock? I don’t see the point of such secrecy. Sooner or later its stain weakens. Each moon has its way was all I finally said. This didn’t seem to disturb your mood or affect your notice. Dear Petrov, I am going to leave and become a moon in a far off sky. Let you find out for yourself.
At a bend in the road a large branch nearly stopped my walking. It leaned across as if an arm. Reaching down to scoop me into its trunk. Holding me always, away from the cold and wet. My boots were laced tightly, dear Petrov. While everywhere the grayness, hills topped with snow. The mountains had snow on their sides like the great white bears. You warned me once not to walk the path alone. You said I would be inviting trouble. I said that would be fine. I said I would like to ride the back of a white bear. You laughed and pounded the table. A jug holding wine nearly went over. I shiver now, though the cold is only on my cheeks. Each part of me covered in the thickest clothing. When you finally arrive a fire will be lit in every room. I’ll take off my clothes and walk toward you. The rough floorboards scraping my soles. My body will feel the heat, dear Petrov, before it reaches out to me.
Susan Tepper is the author of five published books of fiction and poetry. Her current title The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a novel in stories. Tepper is second place winner at storySouth Million Writers’ Award for this year. Let’s Talk is her monthly column at Black Heart Magazine, and she hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar, NYC. Her new book, a zany road novel, is due out this year.