A short story
"Pani rozumie po Rosyjsku?" She heard a voice behind her back.
The wind blew from the deck of the liner into the ocean, scattering the Polish words. She sharply turned and almost buried her face in a white, well-bleached shirt.
"Pani rozumie po Rosyjsku?" Now, the voice sounded impatient.
She lifted her head. It was the same Russian that only this morning, in broken Italian, had argued with the maid so loudly that she could hear his voice from the adjacent cabin. She nodded coldly, not answering his question. He, ignoring her unwillingness to continue the conversation, comfortably adjusted his large body next to her, leaning on the handrails.
"This morning I heard you talking with your husband in Polish. From your conversation, I learned that you, like me, are heading to Brazil. Damn time! Damn war! It dispersed everybody around the world so that you forget who you are, where you live and why you live. We have become people without a present and without a future. The past is foggy. Do you have a past?" Now, he turned his face to her and looked directly into her eyes.
His intense strained gaze frightened her, made her feel very uncomfortable. She had a feeling that she had already experienced all of this in the past " him, this deck, the ocean wind, cold, penetrating deep into her bones, carrying her and her past away to a strange land, into the unknown, and this look, cold and curious, sliding into the cut of her light, silk blouse.
He was waiting for an answer. Did she have a past? Could she explain to this stranger how much she had suffered over the past years? First there was the flight from Warsaw, burned by the Nazis, to Italy and now from Italy to Brazil. How could she tell him about her losses, the fear, the routs, the hatred, the burning hatred of everything and everybody, even her husband, the only human being left in the whole world close to her? Maybe, because he but not their son had survived, a strong love for him had grown into a strong hostility. She plunged deeply into her thoughts, forgetting about his question. He realized that he had touched a painful subject and waited silently. Now she stared at him and without any hesitation looked him over. He was tall and stout. A first hint of gray just touched his hair. A short, accurately cut beard framed his round face. His strong hands were holding on to the handrail. He was handsome enough to attract attention of women passing him by, but...his eyes, green, unpleasantly cold, did not match his warm smile and soft-spoken manners.
"I am very sorry," she said sharply in broken Russian. "I am not inclined to talk to a stranger about my past. Sorry." And turning her back to him, she walked away. He did not move and only his eyebrows rose in surprise. An unpleasant smile touched his well-cared-for face.
In the evening, the wind became calmer. The sun had been slowly cooling down and the fading red ball lazily immersed into the silver surface of the evening ocean. The ocean, lit by the sunset, shone like a steel sphere. These silver reflections blinded her and made her head spin.
It was the second day of their journey. Zbignev did not leave the cabin. From the beginning of their trip he seemed to be bothered by seasickness. He was shivering, vomiting, getting headaches. He complained to Barbara about every unpleasant symptom, looking for her sympathy, her pity and finding neither one of these, he turned to the wall, and, shortly, fell fast asleep. He did not go to dinner. Suddenly, she realized that she was glad for her unexpected freedom.
After dinner the crowd of passengers poured on a deck. The sound of the evening ocean and rare splashes of the moving waves merged with the loud voices of passengers. They were getting acquainted with each other, exchanging the latest news, enjoying the moon that generously dispersed the thick yellow light falling on the deck. In these strange beams of moonlight Barbara found her new acquaintance. He was alone, holding on to the handrails in the same manner as he had done this morning. She could not see his face, but there was an air of mystery in his lonely standing figure, something very attractive and very unappealing. She wanted to slip away unnoticed, but he unexpectedly turned, as if he was waiting for her, and looked directly and coldly into her eyes. She stopped in the moonlight that seemed to bind them together with the same mysterious rays.
"I was waiting for you. You still have not answered my question of the morning and I did not introduce myself. My name is Fedor Nicholaevich -- or just Fedor. I was born in Russia, on the Volga. For more than ten years I've wandered around the world. Now, like you, I flew from Italy to Brazil, which I had left with such anguish, as if I were departing from the woman I loved. And what is your name?" He extended his hand to her.
He kept her small palm in his strong hand longer than required and continued openly to examine her with his sliding, self reliant, eyes. She did not fear him any more and his straight, open look disturbed her less. She leaned on the handrails next to him.
"I am Barbara, glad to meet you," She said, falling into silence and giving him a chance to finish his examination.
She knew that she did not have the kind of beauty that attracted men from their first glance but she was so feminine and radiated such warmth that after just talking to her for a couple of minutes, one wanted to stay near her, to be warmed by her, rather like a furnace that gives generously of its warmth.
"There is something about you that draws me in. I can't take my eyes off you. Your skin is so white and soft." And again looked into her eyes, as if he were challenging her.
That was impudent. She knew that now she should turn and leave but the danger of a game started by him began to entertain her.
"What else do you like about me?" She asked loudly, switching from Russian to Italian that the couple passing them by turned to her in surprise.
A strong surge suddenly struck the board of the liner, and splashes of cold water covered them from head to toe. Both jumped back and collided. She laughed and began to dry her face with a handkerchief. He followed her example, and then, unexpectedly, took off his warm scarf, wound around his neck, and pulled it gently over her shoulders. Both began to feel freer. And from this moment, the conversation moved easily without any tension.
Zbignew continued to stay in his cabin, feeling Barbara's hostility, her unwillingness to be with him. He suffered deeply from the death of their son, the loss of their parents and her sudden alienation. He related to that rare sensitive type of man who could feel and suffer too deeply, too nervously, too sharply. Barbara had become now everything to him: she was his mother, his child and his muse.
There, in Poland before the war, he was a well-known poet but along with the stream of disasters, deaths and adversities, his fame had faded. The sudden needlessness of his work he took very painfully. He still continued to write at night, feverishly, giving his whole being selflessly to word, paper and feelings. The whiteness of the paper magnetized him, as did the outlines of the woman he loved. And then, angry, unsatisfied, he violently put on paper a stream of thoughts, pouring out the unconsciousness of his heart from the very cell of his wandering soul.
In the morning, reading to Barbara those verses he had written the previous night, he could sense by the expression of her silent face how well he had done. She never criticized his work but by carefully chosen words, he knew how deeply she felt his poetry.
Everything she said, everything he saw in her, every detail of her life, he put on paper, turning them into words, images, reflections. He lived her life, followed her every step. Painfully suffering from her sudden alienation, her indifference, he sank even deeper into his own sorrow, tormenting her with his meanness, whims and misunderstandings. She and his creativity had become one, and with her departure he was losing his muse, his inspiration. He did not want to move, to get up or to get dressed. The seasickness was a reason for him to lock himself up, to withdraw from the world around him, not to think about anything, not to desire anything, except perhaps to bring Barbara back. He suffered from boredom, the futility of his existence, and made her suffer too.
"Why did the world all of a sudden begin to split into small particles? I am trying to put them together, but they still fall apart like the lines of my verses that I want to fill with words but they slip away, split into meaningless sounds. I am still waiting for something to happen, maybe for a miracle that everything will become again as it had been before." He got up, pulled her closer to him. His breath fell heavily on her shoulders. She wanted to throw his hands off her body, to run. He closed his eyes and, as in a dream, began to read.
He read it as a prayer, a spell, as if he were begging her to remember those short moments of happiness together. She sensed, she knew what he wanted to say, but at the same time he lacerated her with his constant laments. Anger over his selfishness to comprehend only his own sufferings " not hers - came over her.
He irked her with his sensitivity and refinement, his physical and spiritual steadiness. She thought how much she feared falling into his state of mind, loosing her desire to live, to move forward, to hope. Fedor Nicholaevich impressed her by his overwhelming, almost destructive energy. When he was next to her, she felt that he and the ocean wind were one. Fedor Nicholaevich stood firmly on the ground, as if he had grown into the deck and the wind blew around him. He was stronger than the wind, stronger than her, stronger than anybody she had ever known. He planted a fear into her but, at the same time, she had an untamed desire to be next to him, close to him. Sometimes, she caught herself wishing to feel his hands on her shoulders, his lips on her lips. However, he only watched her with a prolonged, open look and stayed aside, while she was burning with desire.
Once, he asked her about her husband, about her life in Poland, about her past, as if he were studying her up to every detail, every move of her soul.
"My husband was a famous Polish poet," said Barbara as if this meaningless phrase could add importance to Zbignev in her own eyes. On the contrary, it sounded awkward, unnecessary, and he, comprehending her emotions, changed the subject to her past, her interests. And she, following his demands, obeying him, told him her life story. She wanted to talk, to pour out all the pain, tiredness and dissatisfaction. Fedor Nicholaevich knew how to listen without interruption, with the interest and curiosity of a man greedy for other people's lives, as if he was studying the contender.-----------------------------
It was the sixth day of their acquaintanceship " one more day of the inner war, the tense, burning, unbalanced game between "yes" and "no", his game, cold and calculating. Both were exhausted, both knew that they were approaching the end of the game. She was nervous, often losing the flow of her thoughts. She wanted to forget about everything, to feel free, to swim along the stream, from the hot day where the sticky heat, like thick honey, glued to the body, into the unknown, into the mysterious darkness of the ocean. Combined with the ocean humidity, the heat made her feel weak. She sweltered as if it were not the sun but him penetrating her body with his hot lips, touching her with the beams of his burning palms.
They were sitting in the folding chairs on the deck. She closed her eyes to collect her thoughts, to escape this state of numb troubled weakness, this laziness, to stop feeling his presence, to avoid his look full of desire. Never before had she felt such a painful and sweet bitterness. She was longing so much to stretch out her hand, to touch his face, his beard, his lips. As in a dream, she heard his tender, mellifluous voice drowning in the waves, as if he were calling for her to plunge with him into the depths of the ocean.
"Look at the water, Barbara. Do you see these two white birds? They also languish as you and I do. What do you resist, a moment of happiness? How rare such moments are in our wandering, unhappy lives. Follow your emotions; do not fight with yourself, your desire. I see how unhappy you are, how unsatisfied with your life. I see how you resist your passion and do not understand why," he gently took her hand and brought it to his lips.
A cold shudder crept down her back. She opened her eyes. The two white birds circled around the deck in foreplay, rising high in the sky and descending back on the water, coming first closer to the ship, then flying far behind, till they completely disappeared from the view.
"Look, Barbara, passion is always a winner, not love." Fedor Nicholaevich continued his thoughts. "A woman should not be given a chance to choose. A man should fight for her, lavish his care upon her, spread his wings over her, cover her with passion, warmth and tenderness. And she would always obey him."
He suddenly stopped, noticing her fearful look and realizing that he went too far in his contemplations. He kneeled and lightly touched the palm of her hand, slid his fingers above her elbow to the shoulder, then stopped and bending suddenly, reached for her lips. She strained and pushed him away. He backed away. Now, his voice was harsh.
"We are all exhausted, tired of running to nowhere. Our life consists of sharp angles, sticking into the body, tormenting it, and making us suffer. We all want roundness, simplicity, smoothness. Such moments of excitement, desire to give yourself, to dissolve into nonexistence, to forget about everything around us, are so limited in our short lives. Take what is given to you at the moment, Barbara, don't resist the temptation, forget about the past, the future and the present. Remember what Ivan Turgenev once wrote: 'Tomorrow, I will be happy, but happiness does not have a past and does not have a future. There is only the present and not even an hour but just a moment.'
He bent again, close to her face, kissed her eyes, covered her shoulders with sweet, timid kisses. She could not think any more or hear anything around her. She dissolved in the warmth of the sunbeams, the hotness of his hands, the sourness of his lips. The sky, the water and the deck " everything was swimming in front of her eyes into the past. She knew that she did not have a future, that there is just a moment on the border between life and death.
By evening, the weather had become stormy and the heat suddenly lessened. The ocean had been breathing heavily, throwing splashes of angry waves on the deck. The wind circled around the liner, as if trying to bend her, to push her in the wrong direction. The chill of the salt ocean brought some relief. Barbara became more relaxed. Her thoughts cleared, as if she had just recovered from a high fever.
Zbignev was lying in bed, watching Barbara as she prepared for dinner. In the morning, following her on deck, he had seen her standing next to a stranger, and a burning feeling of jealousy, insult and anguish captured him. But even stronger was the sense of vanity, an unwillingness to be humiliated in her eyes. She did not need him any more, she had abandoned, betrayed him.
He fixed his eyes on her, angry that she did not see him, did not pay any attention to him, submerged in her own life, in her own thoughts. He watched as she pulled her best dress out of the closet" the white, low-cut dress of heavy silk that tightly clasped her voluptuous figure. Her mother had given the dress to Barbara for her birthday just before the war and, since that time, she had never tried it on. She looked so young in it.
Zbignev rose, leaning on his elbow. "Barbara", he called almost soundlessly.
She turned slowly, bringing herself back from the past into the present with much difficulty. She blushed, having completely forgotten about him and his existence.
"Barbara, don't go, stay with me. Please, don't deny my love for you. I am so lonely. I need you so much. I see how you slip away from me, and I don't know how to stop you. I do not understand you any more. You hate and blame me for the past. I am too weak for you. I swim upstream and you - against. We are both falling into an abyss, and trying to hold on to each other, just sink deeper and deeper into it. But if I let you go, you will drown. I am the only one who knows and understands you. I am the only one for you in this cruel world. I beg for you, don't go away."
He watched her sadly, and his eyes were filled with so much anguish that for a moment, Barbara hesitated but -- just for one moment. She could not be with him alone any more, listening again and again to his laments, his assurances of his love for her. She was tired; it was too crowded for two of them in the cabin, and she was eager to get back on deck, back to the ocean.
The ocean, like Fedor Nicholaevich, excited her, burned her body with a cold wind and with a warm breath, bringing her back from the past and pulling her, deeper and deeper to the bottom. She set next to her husband on the bed, took his hand. "I want to go, Zbignev, please give me my freedom." She got up sharply and left the cabin, silently closing the door behind her. She did not see Zbignev following her to the deck.
Fedor Nicholaevich was waiting for her at the same place. The white shirt and white trousers contrasted with his deep tan and curly dark hair. They stood there, holding hands, like two white birds, ready for their last desperate jump into the chasm.
An eerie feeling of the approaching end embraced Zbignev. Barbara had left him; she was not with him any longer and he could not save either her or himself. She had swum away from him, as always against the stream, toward the unknown, destruction and to her demise.
Tottering, he returned to the cabin and began feverishly to write. The verses were swimming, falling apart before his blinded eyes and again were forming misty images of Barbara, their perished son, the burning Warsaw, ruins where his life, love, poetry, everything he possessed, had died.
He finished writing and then circled the room, as if he were trying to remember where he was and why. Pain, despair, madness were in his wide-open eyes. Like a wounded bird, he rushed about the cabin, as if he were looking for an exit, searching madly for an escape, but his wings were broken, and all the exits to life were blocked. He bent over the luggage, nervously looking for something in its contents, and at last, he rose holding a small pistol that he so carefully had hided from Barbara. Like a jet of the morning's sticky humidity fear streamed along his body. Zbignev nervously squeezed the pistol, looked around with his almost blinded, mad eyes and pulled the trigger.
The dinner was very lively. Fedor Nicholaevich told Barbara about his childhood in Russia, mentioned some important connections, drank a lot of wine, joked and laughed loudly, infecting Barbara with his merriment.
"There, in Russia," he continued, "I had everything, one could dream about -- money, beautiful women, a rich circle of friends, high society."
Just for a moment Barbara caught herself thinking how callous he was, how superficial and inane. Still the lusciousness of his voice, the charm of his sweet smile, the soft light of his big eyes penetrated every cell of her soul, magnetized her, made her feel drunk with happiness. Forgetting about everything, she dove into the languor of the evening, She felt that she had never been so full of joy. The way he talked, looked at her, touched her had the lightness of a spider net, its threads entangling her deeper and deeper. The time was flying fast, approaching the denouement, the end, and she imagined that from this same moment, her and his life, their journey into the future had just begun. She did not think about Zbignev any more, about her tragedy, about the war; she gave herself to this very moment as if it were an eternity, the eternity of her life with Fedor Nicholaevich. She was longing for the new life that would start tomorrow.
The liner was swaying from the gusts of a strong wind, from the raging storm. Suddenly, it became chilly. Fedor Nichalevich gently put his hands around her shoulders and led her to his cabin, not asking for her permission -- as if this evening has already been foreordained by fate.
It was long after midnight. She was lying in his cabin, clasping her knees. Her eyes were staring senselessly at a bright piece of wallpaper, lit by the moonlight that came from the narrow space of the cabin window. She did not know how much time they had spent together. It was cold. Through her drowsiness she heard his sententious voice:
"Love. What is it? It is something uncertain. I do not care for love. Only passion exists for me, the passion of a moment, that penetrates deeply inside your every bone, incinerates, exhausts you, burns you with desire, burns everything around you, everything that has accumulated inside your soul " anger, hatred, pain. Do you know the expression, a 'devastating passion'?"
Barbara did not listen to him any longer. She lay next to this strange cold man. She was now emptied, disgusted, confused. She hated herself for not being able to feel anything any more. There was none of yesterday's pain, none of today's love, nor dream of tomorrow. The moment was gone. There was nothing left to bind them together, neither him, lost in the emptiness of his meaningless existence, nor her, perishing from her inability to exist in this cruel distant world. The ocean was singing its monotonous lullaby about one's sacrificial life. In the narrow window, the moon, hidden behind the clouds, suddenly reappeared, as if it feared the end of the night. They were approaching the final hours of their journey.