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The Tale of the Falling Fish
Rope walkers are blessed:
They walk not only on the ground
—Patimat Ramazanova, Poetess
That evening, a fish fell from the sky. It was a small sturgeon, bloodied at the gills. From her window, Pascha could see it like a silver lung in the dust, and the moon of its sleepless eye. Pasha believed in omens. In the twilight, the Caucasus Mountains were silhouetted across the sky like a dark, raucous sea poised to crest.
That night Pascha slept fitfully beyond her usual restless dreams. Her husband Basir at her shoulder, hissing his supper of mutton dumplings and garlic sauce in her ear. Their small mattress groaning each time he scratched himself, or his great snores stuttered to a halt then resumed with an astonishing intake of breath. She knew his dreams were not of drowning, but of flying.
In a basket by the wood stove, the cat nursed her litter of seven, one snowy kitten among tabby gray. Everything in this village relegated to hunger and the unexpected, Pasha thought as she closed her eyes. Soon, the usual crooning ghosts appeared, and premonitions spooled like messages from a sea of floating bottles.
The night sky opened with an early snow. Flakes so sticky and iridescent, she’d run outside in her nightgown, lifted the lap of it to catch what swirled and sparkled in the puffs of wind in her hair, her bare wrists, the skin of her breasts. Her mouth thrown wide to taste the soft, unexpected featherings of cloud until she realized her throat was clotted with fish scales. Her tongue, thick and scratchy by the time she’d coughed herself awake from the dream.
In the morning, through the open window she could see the neighborhood children outside with a goat on a tightrope. Not really a tightrope, but a narrow timber, stout enough to hold the animal in the soft light. Children tossed toy hoops at its horns while it bleated from edge to edge. “You see, even my goat can walk the rope, coward.” Pascha could see the dark sulking eyes of the child being teased by the others. He couldn’t have been more than five years old.
In this Russian village, everyone walked the tightrope. They’d swear it started in the womb—small, random kicks exacting the length of the linea nigra— that line of pregnancy pigmented from navel to pubis. Infants in the town walking unusually early,
still cutting teeth while straddling the ridge of gabled rooflines, hay bales readied beneath
the eaves; mothers’ laundry, straw-spurred and damp—another clothesline missing.
The village children whispered of the same dream at night — of knots and fuses, micro- bursts of wind whipping them with brackish clouds blown in from the Caspian Sea, while they balanced themselves across a slippery channel of neon. The familiar jagged inclines of the mountains rounding softly into stripes, pinwheel bright, and the valley below filled with spectators.
In their village, this mantra of moxie was passed as fastidiously from one generation to the next as a capsule of cyanide between the teeth. The cells of their blood, it was said, carried a dormant code, an anomaly—leaf-buds of wing. Every member of the household
kept a three-meter pole with which to balance and their own map of scars.
“Eh, what’s next, a herd of goats walking the wire to Gimry to ravage the apricot orchards and waddling home?” sniffed Basir, nodding toward the sound of the children as he sipped his black tea. Pasha, braiding her hair, lifted an eyebrow at him. He both loved and feared his wife— her odd premonitions, the way the villagers arrived damp palmed at their door with and oceans in their eyes. She’d spoon feed them reassurances, read their bad kidneys and dead cousins, confirm or deny the suspicions of lovers. He’d captured Pascha as a wild beauty in her youth, all fire—anger and passion. Her cheekbones, her slender waist, sharp as the arc of her brows. But this sojourn of sky walkers, this bastion of wrinkled green canyons, had put streaks of ash in her black hair and deadened her eyes.
That afternoon, a young couple removed their shoes at Pascha’s door. The boy’s name was Aram. He came from generations of circus performers, Lak in persuasion— an ethnicity who claimed to be descendants of Japheth, Noah’s youngest son. Aram’s family was highly superstitious, and incredibly dexterous. It was said that his great-grandfather slept in the high branches of the black elder trees, and kept the feather of a serpent eagle pressed for luck in the sole of in his soft, wide-toed shoe.
She offered them tea, as it was too early for cognac, and they were young. She didn’t need to be a mystic to know that they were in love. The girl, Jessenia, was tall, dark haired, and quiet, with a symmetrical face and wide blue eyes. Her skin was so pale it looked as if she had been spun from snow. Remembering her dream, Pascha asked if either of them had the mark of a fish on their body, and the girl pulled down the waistline of her skirt to reveal a birthmark, succinct in fins and tail, its raspberry color at odds with the white ocean of her skin.
Aram bowed his head respectfully at this revelation, offered forth a basket of wild mushrooms and honey cakes, then cleared his throat, “We want to know what the future holds for us…our future.” Pascha immediately had a vision of the girl’s dark hair tangled with hay, the boy’s mouth on her skin, his delight at discovering the scarlet fish birthmark on the crescent of her hip. Pascha saw them frolicking across the wire, both of them in glittery circus masks. The jugglers, the clowns, the great panting tigers below suddenly stilled to focus on the beautiful, young lovers. The awed faces of the crowd choking out an unanticipated scream—a grotesque recoiling of mouths and eyes over which fingers that had been pointing upward, trembled, then reached for the person beside them. Pascha saw a second wire springing up readily from the earth like a sling-shot, crossing the first in an empty, thronging X, the air clouded with glitter and sawdust. Then she caught a glimpse of an unknown woman with hair the color of dried blood.
Pascha’s face betrayed nothing. “There is another,” she said finally, shaking her head, a grimness at the corners of her mouth. The young couple searching her eyes, searching each other’s. “No,” the boy said, almost imploring, then demanding, as he rose to his feet, “No!” His eyes damp with disbelief. He turned and ran from Pascha’s cottage. Jessenia, speechless, hesitated then chased after him when she saw the older woman’s gaze drop from her own. Pascha sighed and dusted the crumbs of honey cake from her table, folded a prayer into her spoon box, all the while noting that the path on which the boy and the girl ran was walled in nothing but precipice and cloud.
Aram had walked the rope for as long as he could remember. His plump toddler toes sheathed in soft lamb slippers followed his brothers over fallen trunks of beech and elm and across garden rails strung in icicles. His father settling him into the not-so-gentle rocking of a predisposed path, as vast as opportunity itself, he would smirk, gesturing his arms wide enough to encompass the whole valley. Come to the edge, he would coax his dark brood of eager limbed boys, Come to edge and take a step. There was only one rule, and they knew it as well as their own particular nestings of broken bones, the Braille of their scars, their own Lak blood: Never. Never look down.
Jessenia knew she would find Aram on the tightrope. It was pulled taut across a cloister of jagged rock, whose pebbles loosened into an abyss beyond. There was no one there to spot him, and they were alone. “Look Jessenia, look at me,” he’d called darkly, “I can fly!” His arms stretched wide with exaggerated flapping motions, knocking him off balance.
“You know it’s not true, Aram!” she implored, “Stop it! Get down!” Maybe she was talking about you, she wanted to shout at him, but there was a stiff wind that day. It stirred the wild irises, hummed in the firs. Aram continued to sway and falter. “Catch me, Jessenia,” he cried softly. His voice, a wound. His dark liquid eyes locked into hers. This time he let go.
Jessenia wept against the rocks, not knowing that Aram had landed safely on the stiff embankment beyond the rocks and her line of vision, and that soon he would climb back up, watch her cry. Why, she agonized, Why had Aram put so much faith in what that old woman said? She thought of Pascha’s placid black eyes, hating her for cursing them. Wasn’t it just yesterday when the silhouette of every tree seemed to hold the face of an angel and the mountains’ stone grip had softened into a cradle? She’d nuzzled into Aram’s neck then, kissed his skin that smelled of rain. And now! She sobbed louder just as he dropped to wrap himself around her, all soft flannel and his warm skin breathing beneath. That peculiar, glorious scent of rain.
Rain. Pascha could smell it from their small vineyard. Basir worked to ready his grapes for harvest, cursed a hidden nest of bees— a paper rose snagged among tendrils. “Bees are lucky, Basir,” Pasha admonished him. Bees meant industry, opportunities for work, the beginning of a new venture.
“For you maybe,” he said, pointing out three welts risen along the length of his thumb.
“Come on, old man. Speaking of luck, there are grapes to be crushed.” It was twilight, and the mountains were a patchwork of indigo, sage, emerald green. “Some lavender oil will pull the thorn of those stings to the surface.”
“Make my luck about two fingers deep and in a stout glass,” he grunted, already tasting cognac while they carted their grapes up the hill through the long grass.
Basir was known for his red wine, using the grapes of the region— pink and large and sweet, which he fermented the old way, in clay jars buried in the ground. The yeast festered naturally from the skins of the grapes, and he infused the essences of bilberries and figs. When he sold out of it at the town bazaar, patrons would often come by the cottage, bargaining for more.
It was a far cry from the life a young Basir had known as a tightrope walker in the Moscow State Circus. His youth abroad was a blur of railroad towns, of sour-bright circus colors and crowds of thin faces looking up— a continent of eyes so still and wide he might have fallen into them had he dared to look down. Then there were the animals—big cats, elephants, sea lions, monkeys, horses, and bears— a hungry, restless stench combing the snowy miles in a caravan of cramped cages, ever mindful of the threat of whips and bull hooks. Many of the circus performers themselves had been drafted from Russian orphanages as children, had never known a life beyond the taste of the torch flame, the lion’s mouth steadying their heads, or the balloons bursting at their temples beneath the hurled blade of a dagger. It was multisensory feast of choreographed beasts and oddities, of spotlights on sequins, of sweat and fire and candy and dreaming in midair. Cheers of teaming audiences lifted high enough to stir the dead air in striped cupolas, where Basir and his company had divined the line between tragedy and exaltation so precisely they could pace it blindfolded, lie down upon it, bounce, cart one another across on shoulders and bike wheels. The soles of their feet sustaining nothing but a quiet imprint from heel to toe, an impression which would sink eventually into a hardened grasping, a prayer.
Tonight she would try sleeping with a clothespin on her toe, Pascha mused to herself with a half smile while coaxing the stingers from Basir’s skin and imagining his eye-rolling, his great guffaws of disbelief. Not unlike the bee sting, it would condense all the wanderings inside her head into a single point of distraction—a throbbing dull enough to withstand her sinking into her subconscious. A bit of pain might keep the spirits away. “Doesn’t every ghost think it needs a reckoning?” she muttered to herself.
“Hmm, my love. How did you know?” Basir winked at her over his cognac. Rounding the stone fence by the corner of their cottage, they could see a woman with dark red hair and a small goat tugging at the end of a rope. In her other hand was a bucket of lily-of-the-valley.
Jessenia noticed how lily-of-the-valley spread until everything green around it choked in its thronging horizontal root system. Prolific as grass, but poisonous, it fawned in blooms innocuous as baby teeth. “Never!” Aram shouted again into a canyon vast as an amphitheater while walking on his hands at the lip of a stone above her. “There will never be anyone but Jessenia!” Never, an echo from the mountain furrows, and Jessenia with her hands across her stomach, went weak-kneed with laughter. They had taken a morning climb down to the river, and were sitting among the stones. It was there that Jessenia had noticed the dark marking on the flesh that dipped between Aram’s index finger and thumb, a pattern not unlike the petroglyphs they had seen painted in the ancient caves.
“What is this?” she had whispered, grabbing his hand.
“What does it look like to you?” the sun a corner in his dark eyes.
“It’s a fish,” Jessenia said, “but I don’t understand…why?”
“Because that old mystic asked who had the mark of the fish. Now I have the mark of the fish,” he proclaimed, his fingertips at the straight white part in her dark hair. “Your fate is my fate.”
“I thought all I had is a strawberry with fins and a tail,” she said, kissing him deeply.
“If I had only known,” he chuckled, unbuttoning her, the sun’s last lingering on the high cliffs. They made love on the incline below the rocks. The pitch of earth so perilous, it was as if they might be flung into the current, or offered up to the stars, stars so close at this altitude void of city lights, they could see the great swirls of the Milky Way. It was a mist of stars—a satiation. The sky was half swallowed in the mountains’ dark undulations. This same rugged, stone earth was still delicate enough to be imprinted with the wanderings of fox and bear and twine their scents into the leaves of wild angelica where the lovers lay sleeping until their skin was cloud swept, and they hurried home in the dark, chilled to the bone.
The region’s tightrope walking school was run by Aram and his brothers, and advertised on kiosks in every city, town, and village from the Caspian Sea to the Georgian border. It was a message carried with the merchant traders who charged their loaded burrows or old trucks up a filigree of mountain passages. The circus was a gilded music box of elaborate trinkets twirling inside the unadorned egg of their existence, and its portal opened in this particular village.
Here, the mountains provided the ideal backdrop for training. The vistas were so expansive, one could lose perspective between foreground and background. The better to focus on the singular dimension of wire, Aram’s father used to say. He had long succumbed to the peculiar purple vodka of the region. His teeth and tongue stained maroon in his sunken yellowed flesh. He had never achieved the fame of his forefathers, but beneath the skin of his young sons, he’d planted a moon sliver that triggered the tide of their ambition. His sons were fearless and forthright, quick judges of the natural abilities of those travelers who managed the mountains pass, seeking opportunities. The school was grueling. Students were heaved onto stilts, wheeling and teetering for miles until they found their point of balance, braved the crumbling brink of escarpments. They began in the middle of the tightrope and then told to walk to either end, while ignoring any slack in the wire, and to rely on the equator of their meter poles. They all fell. A mattress below did little to cushion their stumbles. Still, the height of the rope eased upward, and the challenge was magnified with blindfolds and other innovative venues of danger. The ones who pushed through despite their antagonizing injuries proved they might have the mettle required for life on the wire.
To fund the school, Aram, Jessenia, and the other teachers performed throughout the region. There was hardly a wedding or celebration that didn’t include tightrope walkers dancing the Lezginka on the wire—the women in long braids and gowns flounced on small, light footsteps, while the men wore felt fez hats, rollicking in a series of quick, exhilarated movements, which included dropping to their knees and springing back up. The rhythm of the zurna, a Turkish wind instrument, and the thump of davul were choristers of memory for the marshrutkas, long bus rides home on the dusty entrails of roadway and then up, always up, through the darkness.
Seth, Aram’s older brother, could do a back salto on the wire with his eyes closed. He had become bored, and was now challenged to choreograph a flamingo—a tower of four people on the wire, standing one on top of another’s shoulders. The newcomer, Lilia—a red-haired girl from Kubachi—was particularly fearless, and willing to be the fourth one up. Kubachi was an ancient mountain village of stone cascades—houses and steps, but also of artisians, crafters of weapons, copper, and silver. It was a village known for its daggers and this girl’s spine seemed to be forged from one. The exotic shape of her eyes revealed a distant Mongolian ancestry, and her dark hair had been hennaed in a red sheen. She’d learned to walk the wire as a child, her sense of balance already keenly developed, her sense of bravado as bold as the flame tips of her hair. Climbing knee to hip to shoulder from Seth to Aram to the slightest brother Andoni, she would reclaim her position, no matter how many times she tumbled down.
As the small bag of hazelnuts tipped to scatter across Pascha’s table, the woman who had brought them stated flatly, “I want to kill my husband.”
Pascha’s eyes studied her intently. “It is the vodka?” The answer obvious in the woman’s bruised cheek and swollen lip. She nodded, rage lit brightly in her eyes. “I want you to slip him these herbs,” Pascha said, offering her a small bag of something that looked like tea. “To keep him calm, just add a spoonful in his dinner each night.”
“And if I add too much?” the woman asked hopefully.
Pascha’s eyes warmed then. “It will only make him sleep,” she admonished, while the woman sighed and tsked and folded the bag into her satchel. Her two young, wide-eyed children who had waited grasping at her hemline, now reached up to be held.
Pascha thought later about how many times Basir had said the old mountain proverb: What your wife knows is no longer a secret did not apply to her. Secrets were her livelihood, her lifeblood. Of those who came to her door soliciting some sort of enlightenment, most were alcoholics or family members of alcoholics. There was not much she could do for cellular predilections other than recommend poultices of pulverized charcoal for the hangovers, and prayer for the soul. There were a variety of herbs and tinctures she could suggest for evil eye or hysteria or flatulence, and there were stones from the vault-like caves of the mountain that were infused with a mysterious warmth when left by the bedside and had proven lucky for infertility. Of course, there was many a betrayed wife, as the men in these parts were known to be especially virile, and mistresses were not uncommon. These muscular mountains that looked as if were pooled in blue-green silk, harbored many ghosts—lost, helpless, yelping through silent jaws. There was a hunger here, a longing for something more than the hierarchy of mountain, wind, and sky.
Lilia stood so high in the air, shoulder upon shoulder upon shoulder, she thought she could see the golden edge of autumn, the downy ribs of the clouds. Lofted this far up, she claimed the position of sky— No, of sun, she thought, waiting for the rhythm that signaled her return to the horizon of the wire. This tower of bones aligned in a single point of gravity, was a symbiotic feat of focus, agility, and trust. It was an evolution that might have taken years, but had locked into place, element by element, in only a matter of months.
At night she dreamed of falling.
Her falls caused by rain, by jolting droplets as big as mullets, which left fish-shaped scars hissing in the earth. Someone had recommended Pascha as an interpreter, an intercessor of subconscious musings. “Momentous,” she had shrugged, eyeing the girl. “It is the divine in your psyche, an attempt to discourage you from the path you are taking.” This girl had gypsy blood, a dark north star, the headstrong soul of a stallion. She was headed for a fall.
There was the sound of shattered glass as Aram tossed Pascha’s bottle of myrrh oil into the canyon, his reaction startling Jessenia. The rocks below doused in the fragrant oils, and the resin she was supposed to light so that their prayers would be lifted heavenward. In an attempt to prevent the inevitable, she had already gone back to Pasha, this time alone. Corn and wheat now stored in the lower story of the village cottages, and a green branch above each door to protect the inhabitants from evil spells. A blue-eyed, gold-eyed white kitten, ghosted Pascha’s steps, and the air scented with burning sage. “This is what I think of anything she tells you,” Aram hissed, his eyes bright. The splintering sound still an echo in the air when he’d tried to pull her to him, and kiss her insistently on the mouth. “Why do you put your faith in smoke and oil?” he’d called after her.
“And you put yours in a line drawn through the air!” she’d yelled back, the current of the grasses whispering shut behind her.
Aram’s days were spent on what had become a line between them—his performances on the wire, his practice for exhibitions and circus tryouts. Word had spread of their success with the flamingo formation. Then there was that red-haired girl from Kubachi, whose mother and father had been tightrope walkers. She had surpassed Jessenia in both audacity and skill, honed her ambition into a single daring insistence of body and will. She had given each of the brothers a silver ring shaped like the wreath of a laurel, and they all spent time drinking wine together in the darkening meadows between the fading summer deer flowers and the hornbeam trees.
“I challenge you to walk alongside the stars,” she’d laugh down to them, dipping her soles between high branches, her red hair tangled with leaves. The wine that fueled her restlessness, lulled the brothers to settle their honed, regimented bodies into the crave of earth only briefly enough to imagine how these same constellations would look in the skies of some distant land. India. Brazil. Paris spilled in lights across the river Seine.
One night Jessenia took the dare, followed Lillia up into a grove of trees. The bark beneath her grasp, a rage, a fear grown both slippery and textural. The brothers below nudging one another to attention beside Aram who stood and swore into the darkness. Jessenia, leaving a trail of snapping twigs, had gotten only as far as a nest of owls. There she froze, rattled by the huddled babies that stared back at her in a singular downy cloud of eyes. Grown weary of premonitions, of old sages, and petitioned tokens for grace, she trembled as Aram scrambled up the tree behind her. She took the cool cup he offered her, drank wine from his kiss long after the moon passed over their perch in the tree.
By September, the tightrope walkers had formed a company that featured their core group of four. They were to be a local feature as part of a circus exhibition in Derbent, and their routines were practiced for hours on end until they were executed with nothing less than perfection. Some days Basir came to watch the young performers and reminisce. Pascha’s father had been head of the circus roustabouts— the logistical engineers of the whole glittering, reeking enterprise, who moved them all from town to town. She’d grown up around the circus life, her mother sewing costumes, and reading cards. Young beautiful Pascha, with sequins and sawdust in her hair.
The old injury in his ankle ached with the premonition of rain as he watched the red-haired girl on the wire. She was the star, he’d concluded, noticing the way she seemed more comfortable in the air than on the earth. Tremendously acrobatic, she exuded a strong, limber grace. He caught her eyes— dark and cat-like, curiously familiar. Without warning then, she’d lost her balance, the meter pole tipping like a needle on a compass. The girl landing feet first on the mattress, despite the length of the drop.
Which was more of a shadow? Pascha wondered, This cat or this girl? The white kitten grown from the litter of gray tabbies, little cats who had wandered sinuous as fish, up the mountainside of mosses and thickets of cowberries, in search of sparrows or thrushes. Some had curled themselves on to neighbors’ porches, were fed goat cheese and mutton drippings. The little white one she named Pim, had stayed behind, pressed his purring warmth into Pascha’s side. Speaking of the white one, there was that girl, Jessenia, ghosting her doorstep with her constant worrying, trading apples and wild onions for a bit of cinnamon oil or some garlic to keep the bad spirits away. She’d apologized for the bottle of broken myrrh oil, wondered about her unspoken prayers rising impotently from the stones into the wind. She’d asked more about the interloper, the third party Pascha mentioned during their first visit. Does she have red hair? Will she and Aram join the circus together? Will they tour as their own act? Is Aram safe on the wire? How could she protect him?
“You’re going to manifest her into your life with your fear!” Pascha hissed one afternoon, grabbing her wrist. She could feel the girl’s pulse hammering beneath her fingers. Jessenia lifted her tear streaked face to tell Pascha about the circus exhibition in Derbent, punctuated the exhaled stream of words with a choked sob.
“I would advise that you don’t go,” Pascha informed her.
Jessenia’s eyes flew open wide, her skin so pale it seemed to glow in the faint light. “But I will be performing.” Pascha knew she was worried about Aram falling, about the red-haired girl being alone with him in the old city, wild and lit with festivities.
“You must not go,” Pascha said again, more empathetically this time, but still shaking her head. This girl’s frantic, anxious energy would not bode well for herself or the rest of the group. Pim stretched and jumped lightly into the windowsill, his blue-eyed, gold-eyed gaze taking in the room like a parallel moon and star— incongruous and fantastical.
Derbent was an ancient city on the coast of the Caspian Sea. At 5,000 years old, it outdated Rome, and was known symbolically as the gate between Europe and the Middle East. On this land in which the mountains buckled up from the edge of the sea, the city was a narrow strip of commerce and residences bordered in ancient fortress walls. These fortifications with their towers and their crumbling histories had survived like the tall, tilted headstones of the old graveyards that dotted the mountainsides. The city felt as if were an unconquered relic, but sprawled thin and glittering up the mountain like a serpent. It’s head, the toothed Naryn-Kala citadel raised high on a spur at the top, it’s tail lolling far into the sea.
Coming from so much space, from what seemed at times like a prison of space, arriving in the city was disorienting, a sensory enjambment. Everything seemed slightly unreal— the carpet merchants, the artisans selling paintings, jewelry, and pottery, the thronging crowd weaving through the marketplaces, eating stuffed grape leaves, Beluga caviar in cafes, and saffron flavored ice cream by the edge of the sea. The beach itself was pebbled in gravel and cockle shells. The water, that particular blue of melted glaciers, was a vivid refraction at dawn and dusk that silvered then went dark. It was a habitat of unique marine life, of both seals and flamingos, of sightings of mermaids, and of fisherman who drank vodka in the morning “to counteract their seasickness” and netted sturgeons, slicing their soft, flopping bellies open in search of jellied masses of eggs.
Jessenia had broken out in hives. Splotches that covered her white skin in the same raspberry color as her birthmark. She was a milky ocean awash with mottles the color of blood. She and the other tightrope performers were being housed in a building at the edge of the city’s old wall. By day, they had seen the bright blue Caspian Sea through tumbling stone arches and primroses, while the wire was rigged and tightened to the correct tension, twenty-five feet above the stone floor of the town square. Lanterns were being strung, torches steadied while vendors were setting up to sell their meat pies, shish-kabobs, and beer. The ancient aul, or stone city portion of the hillside, was the backdrop for both stage and seating. There were alcoves and architectural gradations organic to the incongruity of the ruins, and a panorama of the shimmering sea beyond.
Aram peeled the sheets from Jessenia’s skin, and pressed cool, damp towels against her swollen hives. “Sweet love,” he whispered, kissing her skin,” you need to stay home tonight. Watch me through the window. You have been sick with worry for too long. I can see now what it’s done to you”
She knew he thought she was too fragile for this way of life, but still it was a journey they had started together and would finish together. You must not go, Pascha’s foreboding words echoing through her head. “No, it’s the heat,” she told him, brushing the thought away. It was unexpectedly warm day for autumn, and he was achingly beautiful.
“Shh, my angel. Valentina can do your part.” She was Jessenia’s understudy
“She’s just a girl. I won’t allow it!” Jessenia said, throwing the sheets off, and standing at the open window. “It’s too dangerous!”
“Lilia, then,” he whispered into Jessenia’s hair, as she steadied herself at the windowsill, dug at its stone edge until her fingertips went numb.
Lilia had walked down to the meditative edge of the sea. The tide was flat and primal. Painted boats trolled the waters or bobbed from their anchors near the shore. This was her legacy—this unmitigated sense of anticipation, this pure air that she would dance upon, bless with fearlessness, split into awe, and conquer! After all those years of practice at home in Kubachi, this city with its unique, terrible magic would be her inception. Like the ancient bronze arrowheads of the Scyths, unearthed here from stone and sand, the seeds of her own birthright were fiercely honed of perseverance, and hard won luck. Oh, she had never felt more purposefully alive than standing at the edge, her toes already catching the wayward current. Yes, this city was a gateway—her gateway into the world!
Back in her room, Lilia discovered that her costumes were missing. The landlord of the building, in the typical excessive hospitality of the region, had tempted with them tables full of platters of food, served day and night, not to mention the vodka, the cognac, and homemade cherry juice, was now beside herself with shock and embarrassment. She began an immediate search of the premises. In the meantime, a doctor had been called for Jessenia, and had given her something stronger than catnip tea for her nerves and something more to clear the hives. Due to the medications, he had given orders that she was not to perform tonight. Her costume would replace Lilia’s. Jessenia’s hived flesh prickled painfully when she noticed that Lilia’s hair was no longer dark red, but the same soft shade of brown as her own.
Below them on the town square, brisk shadows of cloud blew across children’s sidewalk chalk drawings of angels and kites. Panting tigers were caged inside of a stone corridor, and the clown’s faces glinted in the low sweeping light. The jugglers practiced throwing their pins, and the crowd began to meander into their seats. Aram, Seth, Lilia, Andoni, and the others in their tightrope company stretched their limbs to ridiculous measure and practiced the acrobatics of their routines, choreographed motions they had dreamt aloud in their sleep.
“You were dreaming,” Pascha said, shaking Basir’s shoulder. He opened his eyes to the curiously round blue-gold gaze, the rumble of purring against his chest. He was back at the circus, more than twenty years ago, longer than he had been married to Pascha. There had been other women before her. He had known their bodies better than the wire, the arc of the circus tent. He’d had to. His life and theirs depended on a single point of balance between breath, bone, blood, and sinew— it was their own human infallibilities that kept each other from falling or letting go.
Young Pascha had known she would marry Basir from the first time she saw him perform, and told him so. She never worried about the women who would come before her. She never worried about him falling no matter how outlandishly he chose to defy death, because he was meant to be hers, and for that reason he wouldn’t fall. She told him this as well, and in those moments when the world revealed itself as nothing more than a precarious, chaotic hemisphere of left and right, he vigilantly laid down his footsteps in hushed stretches of heartbeat, because he believed her.
When he married Pascha, Basir was plagued with the aches of a broken ankle that never healed properly, and was ready to retire. By the time they went back to the mountain village of the ropewalkers, Pascha was already pregnant with what she told him would be his first son. She dreamt of the baby in detail, the small pink moons of his fingernails, his tiny eyelashes splayed against his cheeks, the twitching current of his limbs inside her belly. But the baby came early on a soft spring morning, and was stillborn. Two more boys followed, each stillborn, and were buried beside their older brother beneath the canopy of pines at the edge of the vineyard. Pascha wanted the breeze around them to croon, to remain green with lacy shadows, even when winter’s dead white landscape shook the branches, and burdened them all in crackled sheens of ice. From the earth of their sons’ small bones, a rare European Yew had grown. The tree was the fruition of their savage grief. It had grown darkly from their sleeping-waking consciousness across meadows of sedge, the orchards, and vineyard, until rooting itself into the mountain. The leaves and the stems of the tree were a deadly poison that cut straight to the heart. Beyond the vitriol of its changeless seasons, grew the red-cupped berries that pierced the air, bright as droplets of blood. Its hollow fruit was a feast of heady sweetness, drawing songbirds, deer, even the occasional brown bear.
Pascha, knowing the fierce pride of these Caucasian Mountain men, had worried that Basir would leave or find a mistress when both of them realized she could not have another child. But he had remained contentedly at her side, his feet soundly planted on this same wild and bittersweet tilt of earth, and his heavy-lidded gaze still followed her like a north star.
Tonight, Basir had been dreaming of his three sons. They were walking the wire toward him, across a valley sheathed in snow. Even their small footsteps were thin, melted markings across the wire’s laminated sleeve of ice. The clouds blowing them in and out of view were wispy and whorled in sparkles. Papa! They’d called as they edged toward him in slippery baby steps, tears frozen on their bare cheeks, their fingers flushed. Papa! Their little mouths clotted with spangled flakes— a glittering in the air like sequins. He was dumbfounded when he realized the sequins were fish scales.
The light cupping Lilia’s sequins was both sun and moon in balance, one soon setting rosily in the west, the other already risen, poised like a matte white stone. The torches were lit, their heat bellowing up even to this height. At the last minute, the ringmaster had come up with the idea to leave the tigers loosely collared beneath the tightrope. Their trainer swilling vodka, stood near enough to flail his whip at them. The jugglers tossed their burning pins in the air, then across the square at one another, occasionally stopping to throw flame from their tongues. Animals were being squiggled from balloons for the children by clowns, whose pockets bulged with penny sweets. Oh, it was a grand day, cool and still. After alternating between gasps and shrieks and applause, the crowd below was now spellbound in anticipation. The tightrope act was to be the final one of the evening. From the looks of the sky over the Caspian Sea, they would be highlighted in a backdrop of pink-orange sky and distant lights of boats flickering in the softest breeze. The conditions were perfect for a performance.
From her alcove window, Jessenia had a front row seat. The rope was slightly below her and she could see Lilia, Aram, and the rest readying for the performance. She had been left alone to rest, and in the room, she prayed, burned the resin of myrrh, the smoke curling out of the open window into the electric fervor of the air outside.
Following each tightrope walkers’ introduction on the wire, which included a battery of personally orchestrated acrobatics, was the “Lover’s Escapade.” This was Jessenia’s and Aram’s scene, a part they had perfected both on the wire and off. Jessenia, in her bed, felt a shiver go through her that became become a convulsion. She woozily stood to her feet and walked toward the window, grasping the wall for support. She gulped at the cool sea air. The sky was a deep, opalescent blue now, and the stars seemed to coil and uncoil on their pinions. Oh Aram, she thought, laughed out loud at the way his name felt like candy on her tongue. That wicked woman was acting out her part high in the air above the plaza. Her Aram was chasing her now, and she was toying with him. She looked like Jessenia, the dark flame of her hair subdued into strands of brown. It was all too much. A violation. A betrayal rising like needles through her own flesh. Jessenia stepped up to the sill of the window, stood full height in the opening. “Aram!” she screamed, gesturing wildly in her white nightgown, “Aram!”
Aram and Jessenia were aware of a shift in the crowd’s attention, of a woman’s voice shrieking at their latitude. Aram caught sight of the fish tattoo on his grasp of his hand around the meter pole. Jessenia! He scrambled across the wire and down to the ground, past the big cats pacing restlessly. He could see that Jessenia had left the window and was making her way along a lip of stone on the building’s decaying façade. She was leaning against the wall, her white skin beneath her white gown fluttering eerily in the last lucent rays of the sun. She looked like a ghost.
Lilia watched from the edge of the tightrope, hissing her displeasure and fear. Love, she spat into the air. It unbalanced your footsteps, made you feel like you were in midair without a way to walk from one footing to another. After all, it was what she felt for Aram’s brother Seth, who held her tightly, fuming and trembling at the edge of the wire, the tigers, and the flames. Love was a freefall.
The rock that Jessenia was clutching in the wall suddenly wrenched loose. All she felt was the rush of wind, the scraping of stones and thorns into the fabric of her gown, her white skin underneath. Then there was Aram. She heard her name erupt through his mouth from the marrow of his bones— a synchronicity with the gasping of the crowd. She was propelled diaphanously like the flit of a fish through water. The shout of the stars—so many iridescent scales released at once from the blood at her throat. The moonlight, an ephemeral silvering. Oh, she was freefalling, and it felt like forever.
Lilia wondered if she would ever feel at home in these mountains. Winter melted away except for some of the mountains’ snow crests, still tinted red with the region’s peculiar algae. The rivers were cold and engorged, and the meadows crowed with little tirades of blooming—bellflowers, buttercups, and rhododendrons. The ruins of old Moorish castles were now skirted in green sedge, and songbirds twined their nests back into the branches of speckled alders and birch. Spring after winter was a kind of healing, a fever broken into famishment.
Jessenia had not died that night she fell in Derbent. The craggy pitch of the walls, the branches of an acacia tree, and a thicket of primrose had broken her fall. But because her legs had been so badly mangled by the fall, she’d lost them both. After that, she had lain through the winter in a coma of sleep, so still she could have been a cocoon of ice. Aram, by her bedside, his dark hair in his eyes while he held her cool white fingers, and whispered into the corners of her mouth, her throat, her forehead.
Pascha found him one day on her doorstep sitting with his back to her. Even wrapped in his winter clothes, she could see that he was slumped as heavily as the snowy mountains in the foreground. “What could I have done?” he asked no one in particular. Pim, white as the snow he shook gingerly from his footsteps—a trail of flowery shapes, ghostings of a remembered season.
“Listen to me.” Pascha grunted, sitting down next to him, and handing him a cup of hot, black tea, “What do you think about when you are on the high wire? Do you think about where to place your next footstep? How about the one after that, or the one after? Is it luck? Is it instinct? Is it both, or something else? How do you justify not falling?” Their eyes burned and watered with the cold while they focused on the blue-white shadows of the mountains. “We all exist on a high wire. Somehow, we balance what is ours along its narrow, unforgiving path. Even me— just a foolish old woman shouldering her own odd luck and grief and dreaming.” On his dark sleeves, Aram watched the tiny chiseled prisms of snowflakes dissolve into vapors.
The scent of myrrh. It was a memory of something sadly ceremonious, a string of pearly lanterns and drum-beaten air. It was a window of sea, a singular thread unraveling the sky. And somehow she found herself swimming. Breath, a spasm at her throat. She glided furiously upward, toward a watery mirror of light, as if she were finned or winged. Never this buoyant before, she skimmed this liquid space until she had broken back through the surface, left the twilight to ripple open behind her in thinning circles. Her eyelids thrown wide, and the light—a whole horizon pitched succinctly back in to the deep sea blue of her eyes.
Lilia saw that Pascha’s cottage seemed to have aged with winter, but now the trees were soft with the first yellow-green frills of spring. The weathered porch was broom swept, and the lace curtains newly starched in the window. A lolling blue-eyed, gold-eyed cat called softly to her, his white tail twitching. In Lilia’s bag was a silver honey pot from Derbent. It was fit with a stir stick that had a comb for drizzling on one end and a sterling bee on the other. Bees are lucky, she thought as she took a deep breath, smoothed the black gloss of her hair, and knocked decisively.
“My father lives here,” she said, the door opening just wide enough for her to cross the threshold. The rain beginning to tumble in fat drops behind her.