West 86th Street Time Machine by Patrick M. Butler

Two days ago there were still those who went about saying that Peter was a false Tsar, perhaps the Anti-Christ himself.  But then, just as the hour of three was being struck, two long, thin clouds joined in the form of a cross above our village.  It was a Friday according to the new reckoning.  Marina, the serf girl, was the first to see it.  She fell to her knees and crossed herself, then ran to tell the priest, my father.  If he was drunk, as usual, he was nevertheless quick to realize how he could use this “sign”.  Were the rumblings of those who opposed the Tsar to go unchecked, the soldiers would soon be set upon our village to leave behind the smoldering remains of peasant huts and bodies swaying from scaffolds.  So I was ordered to toll the bell which summons the peasants to the village square where my father put them on their knees in witness to this miracle.  Such a voice he had!

“Shall God waste this sign upon your ignorance?  Let him who has eyes in his head understand.  The great Tsar has ordained a new calendar and has not God in heaven put His seal upon it?  Is it not the day and hour of His son’s sacrifice?  Prostrate yourselves, fools!  Bloody your heads upon the stones and ask pardon of the Little Father that he might spare us.”

He was magnificent, my father.  The peasants craned their necks like silly geese and groaned their astonishment to the sky.  And you should have heard his sermon today!

 “Is it not enough,” he roared from the gate of the iconostasis, “is it not enough for the great Tsar to lift his finger that the Lord of the universe acknowledges him?  Has not his sacred person been set over you by God himself?  Who will question it now?”

Each of these interrogations flew like a great gust of wind against the faithful who shuffled nervously in their felt boots.

“Fall on your knees,” my father bellowed with a force that sent his hat flying.  “Bow your stupid heads and thank our father in heaven who has sent you this sign before visiting his wrath upon you.”  And, as one, the peasants fell to the floor and implored forgiveness for their great sin.

In truth, my father hates Peter.  But he is no fool.  And now he has saved our village.

“Rest now, Dedushka.  We’ll bring you your tea after you’ve had a little rest.”  Svetlana looked nervously at Michael rather than her grandfather who was nearly blind and lost to another world.  Or to another century.  At the sound of her voice, Nikolai Sergeyevich relaxed against the pillows.  The excitement which had animated his features in the retelling of these events sunk back into his face.  He was ninety now, and the ancient skin sagged from his cheekbones like canvas from a tent pole.

“That was amazing,” Michael said when she shut the door behind them.  “When he talks it’s like Chekhov or something.”  Svetlana had tried to prepare him for this first meeting with her grandfather, but he had not anticipated such a robust, such a convincing performance.

“He’s not always like that,” she said, putting on the kettle.  “Sometimes he knows who I am and we’ll talk about Mama and the old days.  But ever since she died he’s more and more like you just saw him.  He lives in a history book and you never know what page you’re going to find him on.”

“You mean that little scene just now, it’s not always…?”

“Oh, no.  He’s all over the place.  Sometimes he’s a monk, or one of Catherine’s courtiers.  You never know.  Anything but  a Bolshevik.  He’s consistent though.  He keeps coming back to the same roles.  Like in the one you saw, his father is a priest in some village up near where Peter is building the new capital.  The Tsar has just imposed the new calendar and the peasants are scandalized and resisting the changed dates of their cherished holy days.  And Marina, that’s me, I was owned by a brute who nearly beat me to death for stealing a little bread from his kitchen.  When the priest reported it to the magistrate I was taken away and sent to live in the priest’s house.  His son, well, Dedushka, has been making passes at me.”

“I don’t believe this!”

Svetlana laughed.  “Don’t worry.  I can handle it.  Actually, it’s one of my favorite roles.  I’m also a princess, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, but that one’s boring.  Then, under Nicholas the First he’s a retired cavalry office and I’m his daughter.  He even calls me by my real name.  I like that one.  When Alexander II is assassinated he’s a Narodnik, a revolutionary, and I’m his girlfriend or wife.  I’m never sure.”

Michael was shocked at Svetlana’s complicity in her grandfather’s delusions.  Shouldn’t the old man be looked after professionally, a nursing home maybe?  Yet he was fascinated too, by the scene he had just witnessed.  “It’s incredible,” he said.  “And, you know, it’s like he was talking to me back there.”

“Well, he was,” Svetlana replied.  “Yours is the first male voice he’s heard for months.  He must have thought you were some stranger passing through his village.  He was happy, couldn’t you tell?  Someone new to listen how his father saved everybody from the ‘Tsar’s wrath’!  Do you know how many times I’ve heard that story?”

The two of them spoke English, but with Nikolai Sergeyevich it was Russian.  Michael had been an exchange student in Russia and spoke the language fluently.  He and Svetlana met at an Eisenstein film festival at Columbia where Michael was finishing up his PhD in chemistry.  He was attracted by the delicate, Slavic whiteness of her skin, and by hair and eyes as black and glassy as obsidian.  He liked her from the start, though he was determined not to let it go any further than that.  He wasn’t about to go crazy over a girl whose life belonged to a bed-ridden old man.  After the film, when he’d invited Svetlana for a cup of coffee and then accompanied her as far as her flat on West 86th Street, she’d told him that she wasn’t free to have a life of her own.  Looking after her grandfather took up all of her time except for the one day a week when she could afford to have a nurse in to care for him.  She said this matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity, as if giving Michael absolution if he never wanted to see her again.  Yet he caught her studying his face for a hint that she might be wrong this time, that, with him, it might be different.  He asked for her phone number.  There was something special about this girl.  And, in spite of his reservations, within a couple of months they had become lovers.

But even then there was always something held back.  Michael was careful not to give the impression that this was anything more than a friendship “with benefits”, as his friends would say.  There was the occasional twinge of conscience but, at this point in his life, the only relationship he was ready for was one with an easy out.

“Michael,” Svetlana wanted to know as she readied the tea tray, “how did they call you in Russia?”

“Misha, usually.”

“That’s nice.  Misha.  I like that.  Could I, you know, with Dedushka, could I call you Misha?”

“Sure.”

“Will you take tea with Dedushka and me?”

Michael felt compromised by this new intimacy.  But he was gallant.  “I should be honored to take tea with the lady who helps the Empress out of her garters.”

Nikolai Sergeyevich’s bed was one of those darkly finished things you see in second-hand furniture stores.  Heavy, urn-like lamps flanking the headboard looked as if they had long ago sunk roots into the matching nightstands.  This was the solid symmetry that framed the invalid in Michael’s vision as his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the sickroom.  Svetlana pulled up two straight backed chairs at her grandfather’s side.  He was still sitting up and speaking now with a lucidity that took Michael by surprise.  He was back in the 21st century, in his comfortable New York flat, and perfectly aware of their presence.  What was Michael studying, he wanted to know.  What were his plans for the future.  He seemed to assume that Michael was something more than just a casual friend of his grand-daughter’s.

Svetlana fidgeted with her teacup.

“Aren’t you tired, Dedushka?” she asked after some twenty minutes of this.  “You should sleep a little now.”  The fragile, tender features of the old man relaxed as he closed his eyes and leaned into the pillows.  Svetlana took Michael’s arm and led him to the door.  But she had not yet stepped into the hall when suddenly an authoritative voice was summoning the two of them back into the room’s dark interior.  Michal froze.

“Just one more minute,” Svetlana said softly.  “Please, Michael.  I’ll know what to do.”

“Young man, what is your family’s name?”

Michael was stunned.  What was this craziness.  And who was his interrogator?  A monk, a soldier, a Narodnik?  But Svetlana was behind him, whispering in his ear.  “Don’t be angry, Michael.  Tell him Kerensky, anything.  No, wait.  Tell him Orlov.”

Feeling foolish and trapped, Michael did as he was told.

“An honored name, sir!  To which regiment are you posted?”

“The Semyonovsky,” came the voice at Michael’s ear.

“The Semyonovsky?” Michael said.

“Very good.  Excellent.  Excellent!  I myself served with the Preobrozhensky in the Caucasus.  Now I should like to ask you, sir, about the condition of your family’s estate.  How many souls have you?”

“Sir,” Michael stumbled, “I don’t know…… how many what?”

“Father, please!” Svetlana strode quickly to her grandfather’s bedside.  “It is not proper that you should speak of these things in my presence, and as if Mikhail Maximilianovich had asked for my hand!  I am deeply embarrassed and ask your permission to leave the room.”  Michael stared helplessly at the two of them.  It was as if he had been dropped suddenly into the middle of a Russian play.  The actors improvised around him, contriving his role.  There was something close to panic in his eyes.

“Dearest one, my love.”  The voice was tender now.  “Do not be offended.  You shall break my heart.  You are right.  Kiss me.  A ridiculous old man begs pardon of you both.  Mikhail Maximilianovich, give me your hand.  Forgive me.  I know you are a gentleman and your intentions honorable.  Good day to you.  Come see me again soon.  We shall talk of soldiering, you and I.  Good day to you both.”

Svetlana was on the verge of tears as she closed the door.  Michael put his arm around her.  They walked silently to the kitchen where she put on the kettle again.  Then they sat and looked at one another across the plastic top of the kitchen table.

“Michael,” Svetlana blurted, “I’m sorry.  I can imagine what you’re thinking.  You can leave if you want.  I wouldn’t blame you.”

Michael was certain, and relieved, that Svetlana could not know what he was thinking.  He had been assessing, with some discomfort, the ethical slippage of the last two hundred years.  He was not, most decidedly, the worthy gentleman of honorable intentions the old man had addressed as his potential son-in-law.  And so he preferred to direct the conversation back to Nikolai Sergeyevich and away from the choice Svetlana’s words implied.  “Couldn’t someone help him?” he asked.  “I mean, he seemed so normal there for a while.”

Svetlana hesitated for a moment.  A thought vanished behind a long blink of her eyes.  Then she answered.  “But, why, Michael?  He’s happy whatever century he’s in.  Besides, I like him just as he is.  It makes all this easier, somehow.”

“But he’s not in his right mind.”

“Michael, he sees clouds in the sky instead of a dusty light fixture above his head.”

“But……”  Michael did not complete his sentence.  He felt again like the odd man in the play.  But he was moved, too, even shamed, by Svetlana’s selfless, playful, devotion to her grandfather.

Neither spoke.  Both were miserable.  Michael turned clumsily in his chair and knocked his half-full teacup to the floor.  Almost with relief they scrambled for paper towels.  Then, on their knees, under the table, Michael began to laugh.

“Mikhail Petrovich,” he howled.

“How was I supposed to know your father’s name?”  She wadded up her wet towel and threw it at him.  He ducked, and it splattered against the wall.

“I can hardly pronounce Maximilianovich,” he said.

Then they embraced on the kitchen floor as the tension dissipated in Svetlana’s tears and Michael’s laughter.  Finally, he caressed her cheek and said, “I just have one question.  What are souls?”

“That’s what they used to call the serfs,” Svetlana sniffled.  “Dedushka wanted to know how many serfs you owned.”

“Serfs?” Michael said. “I don’t even own a pair of socks without holes.”

Svetlana smiled.  Then she reached up to touch his face. “I love you, Misha,” she said.

Until now these words had never been spoken.  Svetlana, in her delicacy, and Michael, in his stubbornness, followed a convention which precluded the verbal intimacies.  Now Michael heard the expression of Svetlana’s love for the first time.  And something strange happened.  Not that he recognized in that instant his own love for Svetlana.  He was not so obtuse.  Reservations aside, he had probably loved her from the day they first met.  What happened, simply, was that Michael suddenly wished to be worthy of Svetlana’s love, given to him as generously as it was to her grandfather.  And worthy too of the chivalrous standards of the old man who had addressed him, Michael, grad student of questionable principles, as an officer of the Tsar’s own regiment and, yes, as a gentleman.  “I love you, too” he heard himself say.  He felt as if he had stepped across the chalk line of a children’s game scratched on the sidewalk.  And, like a child, he sensed the thrill of no longer being in control of the situation.  Svetlana smiled again and held him tightly.

After that Michael had three names: he was Michael to his friends, Misha to Svetlana, and Mikhail Maximilianovich to her grandfather.  The old man occasionally greeted him as Michael and inquired about his studies.  But more often than not it was as Captain Mikhail Maximilianovich Orlov of the Semyonovsky Regiment, fellow soldier, and prospective son-in-law.  Michael came every day to visit with him.  The time they spent together became the high point of the old man’s day.  Svetlana had to brush his hair and put a little vodka on the nightstand before the arrival of his visitor.

For his part, Michael had gone to the library and checked out everything he could find on the reign of Nicholas I.  He managed to put together a rather good picture of the life of a young, aristocratic Guards’ officer.  He got so thoroughly into the role that Svetlana teased him one afternoon saying she didn’t know who was crazier, Michael or her grandfather.

His thesis was on the back burner now but it didn’t matter much.  The data had been collected and the analysis was far enough along to know that it was going to turn out all right.  He could afford to ease off a bit.  So he filled his days with playing soldier, reading history, helping Svetlana with the housework and shopping.  He generally spent the night at the West 86th Street flat.  He would sometimes joke with Svetlana and address her formally in Russian as if she really were a lady and he a dashing officer of the Guards.  She’d laugh and tell him to take it easy.  She had no intention of looking after two lunatics.

In time, Michael’s presence in the house somewhat altered Svetlana’s relationship with her grandfather.  The change made her irritable, even resentful on occasion.  Now, whenever the old man reverted to the past, he invariably assumed the identity of Colonel Kalinin of the Preobrozhensky, retired, whose daughter was courted by his fellow officer and friend, Captain Orlov.  Svetlana was excluded, however gently, from the hearty male ambience the two men created in the sickroom.  When she entered, sentences were cut short and she was greeted with an exaggerated, patronizing civility.  She was a lady now, no longer the saucy serf girl or liberated daughter of the revolution.  She said that if Michael kissed her hand once more she’d slap him with it.

One day Michael noticed that Nikolai Sergeyevich seemed to lose consciousness for several minutes and slurred his words when he was finally able to continue speaking.  A week later it happened again, and Svetlana summoned a doctor who had treated her grandfather several times before.  He told them that the old man could go at any moment and, at best, probably had no more than six months yet to live.  Svetlana took the news better than Michael.  He wanted to get another opinion, to call in a specialist.  “No,” she said.  “He would suffer in a hospital.  Can’t you see how happy he is here with us?  With you?”

Svetlana said nothing to her grandfather, but he knew well enough that he was dying, even if he now lived more or less permanently during the reign of Nicholas I.  The day after the doctor’s visit he was particularly anxious, he told his “daughter”, that Captain Orlov come to see him at the regular hour.  “You needn’t worry, father.  He always comes.”

When Michael entered the room the old man struggled to sit up as straight as possible.  “Captain Orlov,” he asked, “may I address you with the familiar form, even as my own son?”

“Surely, sir.  You honor me.”

“Then I should like to speak with you on a very personal matter. With your permission, of course.”

“Certainly, Nikolai Sergeyevich.”

“Do you love my daughter?”

“You know that I do, sir.”

“I once spoke indelicately on this subject, but now I open my heart to you.  I am a dying man, Mikhail Maximilianovich.  Before my death I should like to see my daughter married to a gentleman who will love her as I always have, more than life itself.  If that is your intention, will you grant your fellow officer his dying wish?”

Michael placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder.  “Colonel Kalinin, I shall be proud to call you father.”

Nikolai Sergeyevich smiled broadly.  “Then let us call the bride.”

Michael found her mopping the kitchen floor.

“Come on,” he said, “we’re getting married.”

Svetlana turned and glared at him.  “You’re crazy.  Leave me alone.”

Michael picked her up and carried her kicking to her grandfather’s bedside.

“Father,” he said, “the lady protests.”

“I think not,” said the old soldier.  “Svetlana Nikolayevna, I have given your hand in marriage to Captain Orlov of the Semyonovsky.  What say you?”

Svetlana blushed deeply and turned her eyes to the floor.  “Dearest father,” she replied, “as in all things, I obey you.”

And so, Michael and Svetlana were married.  Except for a brief civil ceremony, they never bothered to make it more formal than that.  Nikolai Sergeyevich, as expected, died within the year.  But the sadness that his passing brought to the West 86th Street flat was soon mitigated by the birth of Michael and Svetlana’s first child.   Little Nick, named after his great-grandfather, liked to play with dinosaurs and dreamed of flying in space ships.

 

Patrick M. Butler

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

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