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Fall 1997

The Figure Skater

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Gina Berriault
Inessa opens her eyes, a task. No one is at her bedside. Someone was there a moment ago-skirts rustling, a cool cloth on her brow, a wet fingertip trace on her temple. Strangers all around, lying under thin covers, under only a garment. Carbolic soap smell, a fly buzzing. Cries and prayers everywhere, muffled by the thudding fever in her ears.

Children, come to me. Your loveliness was with me always, everywhere I went, as close to me as my dear comrades. Auntie of long ago, you come too, come to me again and take my hand in yours again, just as you did my little gloved hand when we went together on that long, long train ride from Paris to St. Petersburg, waving goodbye to my last sight of my father, handsome actor waving. Auntie, care for me, look after me.

"Madame Armand?"

She tries to move her lips to say, I live, you see, and someone lays a hand on her breast and her heart leaps up to meet it. I live, you see, her heart says, and someone goes away.

Vladimir Ilyich, you know I'm here in this land of raging cholera, here in the Caucasus, sent with a message I can't recall, my mind's a swamp fire. Come down, spare me a moment, devise a way to rescue me from death. How high into the sky you go and how far you go and how fleet you are, skating your complicated figures just as you told me you did in Siberia in icebound exile, delighting the young peasants. Over the piercing Alps you fly, over the roofs of Zurich, over Prague, over Cracow, thousands of kilometers in an instant, so far away you won't return until morning when Nadya and myself and our comrades sit down under the striped awnings of Cafe Landolt and wait for you to join us.

"Madame Armand?"

Oh what a sad young nurse stands there above me.

Nurse, my dear, are you the one who tended me in Paris when I was a little child and sick? How kind of you to come all that way to tend me again. I am so glad you are still alive and grown younger.

"She speaks in French. What is she saying?"

"One of the aristocrats. They learn their French from their governess."

No, I am not an aristocrat.

"Pray, Madame, and God will save you."

Nurse, I used to pray but I can no longer pray. I have felt so deeply how everyone prays to Him, all suffering Russia is praying to Him, and He does nothing. Look up, Nurse, watch Volodya, the most daring figure skater in all of Russia. You've never seen such marvelous designs in all your life. Is there someone with him, now? Do you see someone flying through the air with him? I see two and I know who the other is. I know and I'll tell you. Sit down by me and remember with me the little story by our sweet Chekhov, the one about the Black Monk who comes flying back to earth after a thousand years, cassock flapping in the wind, gray beard like a thin cloud blowing, barefoot like a beggar. And one day he sits down on a bench by the side of the young scholar and they talk together about humanity, about the glorious future our young scholar will bring about. Yes, with his remarkable mind, his persuasive writings, his genius. Such an uplifting conversation, it makes that young man feel so fine, so valuable to the world. Nurse, my dear, it's that black monk, that's who's up there with our Volodya. Our sweet Chekhov is up there, too, perched on a roof in the cold night, and he wants to fly with them but he can't, poor soul, he's coughing so badly there's blood on his chest.


No, I am not, I am not. It's what they said of me, a lady, a rich manufacturer's wife, leaving her family, her husband, throwing in her lot, her life, with the revolutionists. Missions whose dangers now seem as nothing, arrested again and again by the Czar's police. What terrible prison is this? Is this the fortress of Peter and Paul?

"The Saints do listen."

I escaped. I fled to Switzerland and there I joined them, Vladimir Ilyich and Nadezhda, his wife, never parting from them. Such long talks, such long walks, such long days working together, and the nights with him so brief. Nadya like a sister to us. My only hint was something no one will ever read. I'll tell you, Nurse, my dear, since yours may be the last young face to look into my own. A popular brochure on love, that's what I was writing, and I said that even the kisses of an ephemeral passion, a liaison, were more pure, more poetic than kisses between crude and loveless mates. And what did Volodya say about that? Inessa, why bring up liaison kisses? Inessa, be logical, why not compare the kisses of a loveless bourgeois marriage to the kisses of love in a civil proletarian marriage? Nurse, my dear, you can see why I gave it up, gave up writing of love and kisses, of kisses and kisses, so many kinds of kisses.

Inessa opens her eyes. The sad young nurse is gone, vanished, already aboard the train back to Paris and growing older the closer she gets, an old woman in a jolting compartment, her dry mouth wanting an English mint, wanting cold Alpine water.

"Madame Armand?"

Back so quickly and young again. Nurse, my dear, it's what trains do with our lives, carry us into our lives and carry away our lives. So many trains I've climbed aboard, up the steps with Nadya and Volodya, and into yet another compartment, our few, frayed bags, our precious books piled on the seats beside us, the émigrés' shaking library. Like a traveling rogues gallery, they're wearing the same clothes year round, his one coat, elbows out, his trousers mended at the seat. Even so, all's clean and tidy. Geneva, come spring, she's painting another coat of varnish on her black straw hat and Volodya is cleaning his bowler with gasoline, and, out in the street in his shirtsleeves, he's making their bicycles shipshape again. Nurse, my dear, you'll laugh in your tender breast when I tell you what I used to imagine. Volodya peddling his bicycle into the Finlandia station in Petrograd, a red banner flying from the handlebars. We returned by train, you know, a secret coachful of comrades, a train entering a sea of red banners, the Red Sea parting for a train.

"She breathes?"

Nurse, my dear, that black monk flying around up there dropped in on us wherever we were, London, Paris. Volodya throws open the window and in he flies and sits himself down at our table, our table loaded high with our letters, our messages, our bulletins, our newspapers, and Vera Zasulich, awestruck, out of her wits, offers him a cigarette, which he refuses, of course, and he talks with us and gestures with us, wisely, widely, and shakes his head with us over the dazzling, beribboned nobility who cannot see him even when his black robes sweep across their eyes. Then Volodya asks me to play the piano for them, and I do, I do, I sit down and play Beethoven's sonatas far into the night.

"Shall we cover her face?"

"No, no, no. Not yet, not yet."

Nurse, look up! The monk is flying in a great circle, spiraling towards a center that seems to be everywhere and now out again into a circle ever wider, so wide its circumference must be nowhere. Do you think he's describing God for us? And now it's Volodya's turn. What astonishing figures no one has ever attempted before! They're shoulder to shoulder now, they're in tune with each other, and off they go. Off they go together, flying over Moscow, over Petrograd, over the spires and domes of those glittering cities, over the moonlit steppes, over the forests' dark masses.

"Can you hear me, Inessa?"

Nurse, my dear, they're flying away from us for good, they're arm in arm like steadfast, dear companions, flying away into this vast pale night, this night without sunset or sunrise, this night filled with my fever's bursting stars.

Gina Berriault was a California writer whose stories earned her the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Rea Short Story Award. She died in 1999.


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