The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Strahan) selection, 2011
When Rudolf Arnheim heard what his father had done, he kicked the leg of a table that his mother had brought to Malo as part of her dowry. It had been in her family for two hundred years, and had once stood in the palace of King Radomir IV of Sylvania. The leg broke and the table top fell, scattering bits of inlaid wood and ivory over the stone floor.
“Damn!” he said. And then, “Damn him!” as though trying to assign blame elsewhere, although he knew well enough what his mother would say, both about her table and about his father’s decision.
“What are you going to do?” asked Karl, when the three of them were sitting in leather armchairs in the Café Kroner.
Rudolf, who was almost but not quite drunk, said, “I’ll refuse to see her.”
“You’ll refuse to obey your father’s orders?” said Gustav.
They had been at the university together. Gustav Malev had come to the city from the forests near Gretz. His father’s father had been a farmer who, by hoarding his wealth, had purchased enough land to marry the daughter of a local brewer and send his son to the university. The brewing operation had flourished; glasses of dark, bitter Malev beer were drunk from the Caucasus to the Adriatic. Gustav, two generations removed from tilling the soil, still looked like the farmer his grandfather had been. He was large and slow, with red hair that stood up on his head like a boar-bristle brush. In contrast, Karl Reiner was small, thin, with black hair that hung down to his shoulders in the latest Aesthetic fashion. He knew the best places to drink absinthe in Karelstad. His father was a government official, like his father and his father’s father before him. Most likely, Karl would be a government official as well.
Rudolf looked at his friends affectionately. How he liked Karl and Gustav. Of course, he would not want to be either of them. I may not have Karl’s brains, he thought, but I would not be such a weasely-looking fellow for all the prizes and honors of the university, none of which, incidentally, had come to Rudolf. And while Gustav is as rich as Croesus, and a very good sort of fellow to boot, what was his grandfather? And he remembered with pride that his grandfather had been a Baron, as his father was a Baron. His father, the Baron. He could not understand his father’s preposterous–preposterous–he could not remember the word. Yes, Gustav and Karl were his best friends.
He stood up and stumbled, almost falling on Karl. “Really, you know, I think I’m going to throw up.”
Karl paid the bill, while Gustav held him under the arms as they wound their way around the small tables to the front entrance.
“The Pearl,” said Karl later, when they were sitting in their rooms. They shared an apartment near the university, on Ordony Street. “I wonder what she’s like, after all these years. No one has seen her since before the war. She must be forty, at least.”
Rudolf put his head in his hands. He had thrown up twice on his way home, and his head ached.
“Surely your father won’t expect you to–take her as a mistress,” said Gustav, with the delicacy of a country boy. He still blushed when the women on the street corners called and whistled at him.
“I don’t know what he expects,” said Rudolf, although his father had made it relatively clear.
“As far as I can tell, Rudi, your entire university education has been a waste of money,” his father had said. Rudolf hated to be called Rudi. His father was sitting behind a large mahogany desk and he was standing in front of it, which put him, he felt, in a particularly disadvantageous position. “You have shown absolutely no intellectual aptitude, and no preference for any profession other than that of drunkard. You have made no valuable connections. And now I hear that you have formed a liaison with a young woman who works in a hat shop. You will argue that you are only acting like the men with whom you associate,” although Rudolf had been about to do nothing of the sort. “Well, they can afford to waste their time drinking and forming inappropriate alliances. Karl Reiner has already been promised a position at the Ministry of Justice, and Gustav Malev will return home to work in his family’s business. But we are not rich, although our family is as old as Sylvania, and on your mother’s side descended from King Radomir IV himself.” Rudolf thought of all the things he would rather do than listen once again to the history of his family, including being branded with a hot iron and drowned in a horse pond. “I have paid for what has proven to be a very expensive university education, in part because of the dissolute life you have led with your friends. You sicken me, you and your generation. You don’t understand the sacrifices we made. When I was in the trenches, all I could think of was Malo, how I was fighting for her and for Sylvania. However, now that you have completed your studies, I expect you to take your place in society. Your future, and the future of Malo, depends on the position you obtain, and on whom you marry. You will immediately give up any relationship you have with this young woman.” And then his father had told him about The Pearl.
“I will pay for her apartment and expenses. It will be a heavy burden on my purse, but you must be taken in hand. You must be made to attend to your responsibilities. I would do it myself, but I cannot leave Malo until I know how the wheat is performing. If you paid any attention, you would know how precarious a position we are in, how important it is that you begin to consider more than yourself. She will introduce you to the men you need to know to advance your career, and keep you from forming any unfortunate ties.”
The Pearl. She had been one of what a Sylvanian writer of the previous generation had referred to as the grandes coquettes, mistresses of great men who had moved through society almost as easily as respectable women because of their beauty and wit. She had been called The Pearl because she had shone so brightly, first in the theater and then in the social world of Karelstad, when Rudolf was still learning to toddle on his nurse’s strings. She had been famous for her luminescent beauty, adored by the leading noblemen and government officials of her day and tolerated by their wives. Until, one day, she had disappeared.
Rudolf’s relationship with Kati, who did indeed work in a hat shop, was less serious than his father suspected. She had allowed him to go so far and no further, in the hope that someday she would be offered a more legitimate role and become a Baroness. He would have been eager, if somewhat apprehensive, at the thought of having an official, paid mistress. But not one who must be at least twice his age, and certainly not one chosen by his father.
“How in the world did your father find her?” asked Gustav, but Rudolf had no idea.
They had been walking for at least an hour, farther and farther away from what Rudolf called civilization, meaning Dobromir, the town closest to Malo, the estate that had been in his father’s family for generations. When the roads had ended, they had walked on paths marked by cartwheels, and finally over fields where there were no paths. Now they stopped at the edge of a wood. Rudolf looked down with distaste at the mud on his boots.
“There,” said his father.
Rudolf looked up and saw a cottage built of stone, like the cottages of farm laborers but without their neat orderliness or the geraniums that always seemed to grow in pots on their windowsills. This cottage seemed almost deserted, with moss growing on the stones and over the thatched roof. It was surrounded by what was probably supposed to be a garden, but was overrun by weeds, and although it was late summer, the apples on the ancient apple trees by the fence were small and hard. In the garden, a woman was working with a spade. As they approached, she stood up and looked at them. She had a straw hat on her head.
“Wait here,” said his father. He opened a gate that was leaning on its hinges and walked into the garden. When he reached the woman, he bowed. Rudolf was astonished. Who, in this godforsaken place, would his father bow to?
Rudolf heard them speaking in low voices. To pass the time, he tried to wipe the mud off his boots on the grass.
His father and the woman both turned and looked at him. Then, his father walked back to where Rudolf stood waiting. “Come,” he said, “and keep your mouth shut. I don’t want her to think that my son is a fool.”
She looked thin, almost malnourished, in a dress that was too large for her and had faded from too many washings. When she lifted her head to look at him and Rudolf could see under the brim of her hat, he saw that her skin was freckled by the sun, with lines at the corners of the eyes and mouth. Her eyes were a strange, light green, almost grey, and they stared at him until he felt compelled to look down. Despite the sunlight in the clearing, he shivered.
“This is your son,” she said. “He looks like you, twenty years ago.”
“It would, as I have said, be a great favor to me, and I would of course make certain that you had only the finest…”
“I have no wish to return to Karelstad, Morek. If I do as you ask, it will not be because I want to live in a fine apartment or wear costly jewels. It will be because once, long ago, when I needed kindness, you were kind. Kinder than you knew.”
“And the boy is acceptable?”
“He could be lame and a hunchback, and it would make no difference.”
Rudolf felt his face grow hot. He opened his mouth.
“Excellent,” said his father. “The keys to the apartment will be waiting for you. Send for him when you’re ready.”
The woman nodded, then turned back to her weeding.
Rudolf trudged over the fields and along the country roads behind his father, wondering what had just happened.
The summons came two weeks later. Meet me at 2:00 p.m. at Agneta’s, said the note. It was written on thick paper, soft, heavy, the color of cream, scented with something not even Karl, who considered himself a connoisseur of women’s perfumes, could identify. “It’s not jasmine,” he said. “Sort of like jasmine mixed with lily, but with something else…”
“What do you think she wants?” asked Gustav.
“She’s his mistress,” said Karl. “What do you think she wants?”
“I don’t know,” said Rudolf. What would he say to her? He imagined her in a straw hat and a faded dress in the middle of Agneta’s, with its small tables at which students, artists, and women in the latest fashions from Paris sipped cups of Turkish coffee or ate Hungarian pastries. Suddenly, he felt sorry for her. Karelstad had changed so much since she had last seen it. It had been impoverished but not damaged during the war, and since the divisions of Trianon, it had become one of the most fashionable capitals in Europe. She would look, would be, so out of place. He would be kind to her, would not mind his own embarrassment. Perhaps they could come to some sort of agreement. She could live in her apartment and do, well, whatever she wanted, and he would be free of any obligations to her.
He looked at himself in the mirror. He looked rather fine, if he did say so himself. He practiced an expression of sympathy and solicitousness.
By the time he was sitting at one of the small tables, he was feeling less sympathetic. How like his father, to embarrass him in front of all these people. He did not know most of them, of course, but sitting next to the door–surely that was General Schrader, whom he had seen once in a parade commemorating Sylvanian liberation from the Turks, and he was almost certain that the woman with the ridiculously long feathers in her hat was the wife of someone important. Hadn’t he seen her sitting on the platform at his graduation?
General Schrader had risen. There was a woman joining him, a woman so striking that Rudolf could not help staring at her. She was wearing a green dress, a dress of almost poisonous green. A green cowl of the same material framed her face, a pale face with a bright red mouth, so vivid that Rudolf thought, I’ve never seen anything so alive.
But she did not stop at the general’s table. Instead, she walked across the room in his direction. At every second or third table she stopped. Men rose and bowed, women either turned their heads, refusing to look at her, or kissed her on both cheeks. In her wake, she left whispers, until the café sounded like a forest of falling leaves.
“So nice to see you again, Countess,” Rudolf heard her say, and the woman with the feathered hat responded, “Good God! Can it really be you, come back from the dead to steal our husbands? Where did I leave mine? Oh my, I’m going to have a heart attack any minute. My dear, where have you been?”
A long, lean man sitting in a corner rose, kissed her hands, and said, “You’ll sit for me again, won’t you?”
“That’s Friedrich, the painter,” said Karl. “I’ve never seen him talk to anyone since I started coming here four years ago. I’ll bet you twenty kroners that she’s a film actress from Germany.”
“I don’t think so,” said Gustav. “I think–”
And then she was at their table.
“You must be Rudolf’s friends,” she said. “It was so nice to meet you. Must you be leaving so soon?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said Gustav, hastily rising. “Come on, Karl. I’m sure Rudolf wants some privacy.”
And then he was alone with her, or as alone as one can be in Agneta’s, with a roomful of people trying, surreptitious, to see with whom she was speaking.
“Hello, Rudolf,” she said. “Thank you for being prompt. Could you order me some coffee? And light me a cigarette. I haven’t had a cigarette in–it must be twenty years now. I’ve made a list of the people you’ll need to meet. You can tell me which ones you’ve met already.” She waited, looking at him from beneath long black lashes. Her eyes were still green, but somehow they had acquired depth, like a forest pool. “My coffee?”
“Yes, of course,” said Rudolf. He gestured for the waiter and suddenly realized that his palms were damp.
The party had lasted long past midnight. The Crown Prince himself had been there. The guest list had also included the Prime Minister; General Schrader; the countess of the feathered hat, this time in a tiara; the painter Friedrich; the French ambassador; Anita Dak, the principal dancer from the Ballet Russes, which was staging Copélia in Karelstad; a professor of mathematics in a shabby coat, invited because he had just been inducted into the National Academy; young men in the government who talked, between dances, about the situation in Germany; young men in finance who talked about whether the kroner was going up or down, seeming not to care which as long as they were buying or selling at the right times; mothers dragging girls who danced with the young men, awkwardly aware of their newly upswept hair and bare shoulders, then went back to giggling in corners of the ballroom. At first Rudolf had felt out of place, intimidated although as the future Baron Arnheim he certainly had a right to be there, should probably have been there all along rather than smoking in cafés with Karl and Gustav. But it did not matter. He was escorting The Pearl.
She walked beside him down the darkened street, her white furs clasped around her. She had not wanted to take a cab. “It’s not far,” she had said. “I want to see the night, and the moon.” It shone above the housetops, swimming among the clouds.
“Here it is,” she said. It had been three weeks since he had met her at Agneta’s, and he had never yet seen where she lived, the apartment that his father was paying for. He had wanted to, but had not, somehow, wanted to ask. He still did not know, exactly, how to talk to her.
“Could I–could I come up?” he asked.
For a moment, she did not answer. Then, “All right,” she said.
Her apartment was larger than the one he shared with Karl and Gustav, and luxuriously furnished. He recognized a table, a sofa, even some paintings from Malo, and suddenly realized that his mother must have sent them. His father might have paid for an apartment, but he could never have furnished one.
She turned on a lamp, but the corners of the room remained in shadow. She shone in the darkness like a pale moon.
“You made me dance with every girl at the party, but you wouldn’t dance with me,” he said.
“That wasn’t the point,” she said. “How did you like the French ambassador’s daughter? Charlotte De Grasse–she’s nineteen, charming, and an heiress.”
“I want to dance with you,” he said.
She looked at him for a moment. He could not tell what she was thinking. Then she went to the gramophone and put on a record: a waltz.
Nervously, he took her in his arms. She was wearing something grey, like cobwebs, and her eyes had become grey as well. A scent enveloped him, the perfume that Karl had been unable to place.
“You’re exquisite,” he said, then realized how stupid that had sounded.
“Don’t fall for me,” she said. And then, almost as though he did not know what he was doing, he started to dance with her in his arms, around and around and around.
She sat on the edge of the bed. In the morning light coming through the windows, her robe was the color of milk. She had washed her face. Once again she looked like the woman that Rudolf had seen near Malo: thin, but now paler and more tired, with blue shadows under her eyes. Older than she had looked last night. It was just after dawn; the birds in the park had been singing for an hour.
“This is who I am, Rudolf,” she said. “Beneath the evening gowns and cosmetics. Do you understand?”
He pulled her to him by the lapel of her robe, then slipped it off her shoulder. He kissed her skin there, then on her collarbone and her neck. The scent still clung around her, as though it were not a perfume but an exhalation of her flesh. “I don’t care,” he said.
“No,” she said, sounding sad. “I didn’t think you would.”
Last night, he had touched her carefully, hungrily. At times he had thought, She is delicate, I must be very gentle. At times he had thought, I would like to devour her. Her fingers had traveled over him, and he had thought they were like feathers, so soft. At times he had shuddered, thinking, They are like spiders. She is the one who will devour me. He had looked down into her eyes and wondered if he would drown, and wanted to drown, and had at times felt, with terror and ecstasy, as though he were drowning and could no longer breathe. Finally, when he lay spent and she kissed him on the mouth, he had thought, It is like being kissed by a flower.
He pulled her down beside him and kissed her, insistently.
“Rudolf,” she said. “The French ambassador’s daughter–”
“Can go to hell,” he said. And a part of him noticed, gratified, that this time she touched him as hungrily as he had touched her. Afterward, he lay with his head just beneath her breasts, moving as she breathed, his fingers stroking the skin of her stomach.
“I can’t stay,” she said. “Soon, I’ll have to return to Dobromir. Once you have a position and are engaged, you won’t need me anymore, and then I’ll go.”
He raised himself up on his elbow. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would you want to go back there, to that hovel? And why should I marry anyone? I want to be with you.”
“I told you not to fall for me.” She sighed. “The first time I came to Karelstad, all I wanted was to dress in silk, wear high heels, smoke cigarettes. Motorcars! Champagne! The lights of the city at night, so much more exciting than the moon and stars. The theater, playing a part. It allowed me to be something other than myself. And then the men bringing me flowers, white fox furs, diamonds to wear around my neck, like drops of water turned to stone. Many, many men, Rudolf.”
Frowning, he turned his head. “I don’t want to hear about them.”
She stroked his hair. “But I became sick. Very, very sick. I had to go back, live among the trees, drink water from the stream. If I stay here much longer, I’ll become sick again.”
“How can you know that?” he said.
He turned to look at her and saw a tear slide from the corner of her eye. He pulled himself up until he lay beside her and kissed it away. “All right then, I’ll come to Malo. I’ll live in that hovel of yours, or if you don’t want me to, I’ll visit every day. At least we can see each other.”
She smiled, although her eyes still had the brightness of unshed tears. “Now you’re being ridiculous. Don’t you realize what Malo is? It’s been there, the forest and the fields, for a thousand years. The Barons of Malo have cared for that land, and you must care for it, as your son must care for it after you. If I thought you would abandon Malo, I would leave today, knowing that my time here in Karelstad, with you, had served no purpose. Tell me now, Rudolf. Will you abandon Malo?”
Her smile frightened him. She seemed, suddenly, kind and sad and implacable. “If I don’t, how long do we have?”
“I promised your father that I would stay until your wedding day. But you must not delay it, you must not put off taking the position I’ve found for you. You must not try for more than I can give.”
“Damn my father,” he said. “All right, then. I’ll do as I’m told, like a good boy. And if I’m good, what do I get, now? Today?”
She wrapped her arms around him, and suddenly he felt a constriction in his chest, a sudden stopping of the heart he had felt only when seeing a serpent in his path or listening to Brahms. He could not breathe. He wondered why anyone had thought breathing was important.
“You know,” said Karl, “I would probably kill you if it would make her look at me.”
They were sitting in the park. Karl and Rudolf were smoking cigarettes. Gustav was smoking a pipe.
“How you can stand that foul stench…” said Rudolf.
“It’s no worse than Karl’s French cigarettes,” said Gustav. “Good Turkish tobacco, that’s what this is.”
Rudolf knocked ash off the tip of his cigarette. “Well, it smells like you’re smoking manure.”
“He doesn’t want to stink for The Pearl,” said Karl. “Rudolf, I hope you enjoyed my announcement of your probable demise.”
“If she would look at you, but she won’t,” said Rudolf. He had spent the night with her. He spent every night with her now, knowing and yet refusing to believe that his time with her was coming to an end. Several months ago, he had shared with Karl and Gustav every detail of his frustratingly slow and not at all certain conquest of Kati. But he had told them nothing about the nights he had spent with The Pearl. Karl had hinted several times that he would like to know more. Gustav had stayed silent.
“Why is that, do you think?” asked Karl. “While your face is pleasant enough, you’re not exactly the Crown Prince, and my uncle is a Minister. Hell, I may even be a minister myself someday.”
“Because she’s a Fair Lady,” said Gustav.
“A what?” asked Karl.
“My grandmother told me about them, once when I had the measles and had to stay home from school. You really don’t know about the Fair Ladies?”
Karl blew cigarette smoke through his nose in a contemptuous sort of way. “Why should I?”
“Because they’re dangerous,” said Gustav. “They live in the forest, inside trees or at the bottom of pools, and when they see a woodsman or a hunter, maybe, they beckon to him, and he goes to dance with them. He dances with the Fair Ladies until he’s skin and bone, or maybe a hundred years have passed and all his friends and relatives are dead, or he promises to give the Fair Ladies anything they want, even the heart out of his chest or his first male child. I tell you, Fair Ladies are dangerous.”
“And imaginary,” said Karl.
“Ask my grandmother. One of her nephews was taken away by a Fair Lady. She had him for three days, and when she returned him, there were things missing from his house. All of his mother’s clothes, some jewelry that had been sitting on her dresser, phonograph records. He said that had been the price of his return–he had promised them to the Fair Lady.”
“Sounds like a thief, not a fairy,” said Karl.
“Fairies are imaginary. Fair Ladies are real. How else do you explain the fact that when she comes into the room, you actually, unbelievably, shut up?” Gustav put his pipe to his mouth, inhaled, and blew out a smoke ring. “I think she’s getting ready to steal our Rudi away. What do you think she’ll want, Rudi? The heart out of your chest?”
“Well, Rudi, what do you think? Is she a Fair Lady?” asked Karl. “You haven’t said anything for a while.”
“She’s found me a job,” said Rudolf. “I’m going to be secretary to the Prime Minister.”
“Hell!” said Karl. And then, “Bloody hell!”
“And I’m supposed to marry someone named Charlotte. She’s the French ambassador’s daughter. As soon as I’m married, she says, she’s going to go back to Malo.” He threw his cigarette on the path and ground it out, savagely, with his boot heel.
He wasn’t going to do it. He wasn’t going to marry Charlotte.
He had to tell her. Go to her and say, “Come away with me. If you don’t want to stay in Karelstad, we’ll go to Berlin or Vienna. I’ll work to support us, and if you do get sick–why should you get sick when you’re with me? But if you do–I’ll find the best doctors to treat you. At Vienna they have the best medical school in Europe. Don’t you see that I can’t live without you?”
What had Gustav said? That Fair Ladies were dangerous. Well, she had taken the heart out of his chest, all right.
“Be happy, Rudolf,” she had said to him. And, “Tomorrow is your wedding day. I will not see you again, after tonight.” He had made love to her fiercely, angrily. And when he stood for the last time in the hallway, she had cupped his cheek with her hand, kissed him as tenderly as a mother kisses a child, and said, “Goodbye.” Then, she had closed the door.
But here he was, standing in the street across from her apartment building. He would cross the street, go up the stairs to her apartment, knock on her door, bang on it if she refused to open, and tell her that he wasn’t going to go through with it.
“What are you doing here, young Arnheim?” He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see the painter Friedrich standing beside him. “I passed Szent Benedek’s on my way here and saw the wedding guests going in. You don’t want to disappoint them, do you? If you run, you can be there in ten minutes. So go already.” He waved his hand, as though shooing a fly.
“I can’t,” said Rudolf. “I have to see her, talk to her.”
“To say what, exactly? That you’re in love with her, that you want to spend the rest of your life with her? Don’t you think she’s heard it all before?”
“I don’t care. This is different. She loves me too, I know she does.”
The painter put his hands in his pockets. He looked down at the pavement, then spoke slowly. “It’s possible. She’s capable of love, although you wouldn’t know it from the stories people tell, sitting around their fires in the winter, in places like Lilafurod and Gretz. I’m going to tell you a story of my own. It will take five minutes, which will give you ten minutes to get there, just in time for the wedding.
“Once upon a time, there were three young men as stupid, if that is possible, as you and your friends. Their names were Péter Andrassyi, Morek Arnheim, and Herman Schrader. Andrassyi was a Count, and he was rich enough to buy himself a mistress, the fabulous Pearl of great price, who had just finished a successful run as Juliet at the National Theater. The famously irascible theater critic Mor Benjamin wrote that no other actress could die as convincingly as she could. She had been sitting for me–I had painted the posters for the play, and I asked her to sit for another project of mine, a small painting of a sylph standing naked by a stream, reflected in the water. Twice a week she would come to my studio, and I would paint her–naked, as I said. Have you ever seen a case of tuberculosis? No? Well, that’s what it was like. She just started wasting away. I asked her what was wrong, what she was eating. She said she was well enough, that she didn’t want to talk about it. But when she started coughing up blood, or whatever she has in those veins of hers, she told me. Her kind–they don’t belong here, and if they stay too long, they sicken and then die. I went to Andrassyi’s apartment. I told him about her condition, about what I had seen and what he must have noticed himself. Do you know what he said to me? That I shouldn’t stick my nose into what was not my business, that I had always been jealous of him and simply wanted her for my own. He would not let her go, and as long as he wanted her, as long as he told her that he could not live without her, she would not leave Karelstad. I argued with her! How I argued. But she said, “He loves me. You know what I am, Friedrich. My nature binds me to him, more strongly than any of your legal ties. It isn’t in the stories, is it, that we can be so caught?”
“I thought Gustav was joking,” said Rudolf. “Do you mean that she’s really–”
“Quiet, pup,” said Friedrich. “I only have three more minutes to finish my story. So, I challenged him to a duel. It was stupid–he was an excellent shot and I was a poor one, but I was young and in love with her myself, although in a different way than he was. Artists aren’t quite human either, you know. They also love differently. Schrader was his second. Arnheim, your father, was mine. I had no friend of my own to second me, and I knew that your father was an honorable, if intolerably boring, man. We met in the park at dawn, when there would be no observers. Andrassyi should have shot me–I should have died that day, but the luck that rewards all fools was with me, and he missed. I, who had never before hit a target, shot him dead. I was brought before a judge, but what could he do? There were two witnesses to swear that we had agreed on the place, the time, the weapons–Andrassyi had even shot first.
“When I told her, she screamed at me and beat me with her fists. Then, she wept for a long time. And then she went back to Malo. I asked your father to take her–there was no train back then, they went in a carriage and the journey took two days. She wrote to me, once. The letter said only, Thank you. I am better now. And there I thought she would stay, until your father decided that his ambitions for you were more important than her life. Why she would agree to come back for a pup like you–”
“Not for me,” said Rudolf. “For Malo. She cares about Malo–” He felt as though he had been hit, by something he could neither understand nor name. The street seemed to be reeling around him.
“Why do you think I’m here?” asked Friedrich. “To take her back. I don’t know if she feels about you as she felt about Andrassyi, but I’m fairly certain that if you walk into that apartment, if you tell her that you want her, she will not leave. She values her life, and knows that staying will kill her. But that’s what it means, to be what she is–she would stay for you and die.”
“I–I love her. I would never hurt her.”
“Then let her go. Do you know what love is, young Arnheim? Ordinary, human love. It’s when you see another person–see her as she is, not as you would like her to be. Have you seen her?”
Her pallor, these last few days. The dark circles under her eyes. The sharpness of her ribcage under his hands. Rudolf looked up at her window. What was she doing now? Packing, no doubt. She had accomplished what she came for. He thought, I hope she weeps for me, a little.
Then, he turned in the direction of Szent Benedek’s and began to run.
Gustav caught him just as he was about to step through the door to the courtyard.
“Where are you going, so early?”
“Hunting,” he said, as though the answer were obvious. He wore his flannel hunting coat and carried a rifle.
“I think I’ll go with you,” said Gustav.
“You’ll ruin your shoes.”
“They’re more appropriate than boots, for a funeral.”
The grass was still wet from the night’s rains. They walked over the lawn, away from the house that had stood there for fifteen generations, looking, with its battlements and turrets, like a miniature medieval fortress. They passed the privet maze and rose garden, then the herb garden where bees were already at work among the lavender, and followed the road that led to the old chapel.
“Once,” said Gustav, “this forest used to stretch across Sylvania. That’s why the Romans called it Sylvania–The Forest. There was plenty of room, then.”
“For what?” asked Rudolf.
“For whatever you’re hunting.”
They walked in silence. The sky was growing brighter, and the birds in the trees were filling the air with a cacophony of song.
“Mary, mother of God!” said Gustav suddenly. He surveyed one of his shoes, which was covered with mud. He had stepped into a puddle.
“I told you,” said Rudolf.
“You know what that reminds me of?” asked Gustav. “Karl. He always insisted on wearing his city clothes in the country. You should have seen him when he visited me last year, at Gretz! But I knew that if I stopped to change, you would leave without me. Have you talked to him lately?”
“Karl? We don’t talk anymore. He believes in the Reich. He thinks it will unite all of Europe. There will be no more war, he says, when Europe is united. He says we must all be international–under a German flag, of course. I don’t believe in peace at that price.”
“Well, perhaps he is a realist and we are the romantics, clinging to our old ways, our country houses and the lands our parents have farmed for generations. Perhaps in his new world order there will be no place for us.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Rudolf. “Any German who comes to Malo will get a bullet through the head, until I run out of bullets. And then they can shoot me. There are worse things than dying as a Sylvanian. My father said that to me before he died. He could barely speak after the stroke–but he was right.”
“What about Lotta and the baby?”
“They leave for France next week. My mother will take them. If there’s going to be a war, I want them out of it.”
They stopped. They had come to the chapel. It had been built of the same grey stone as the house, but was now covered with ivy that was starting to obscure even some of the windows, with their pictures of saints and martyrs. It was surrounded by a graveyard.
“We used to come here on Sunday mornings,” said Rudolf. “The family and all the laborers on the estate, worshiping together. Karl would call it positively feudal. But now everyone goes to the church in Dobromir. No one comes here anymore.”
Nevertheless, among the gravestones stood a priest, beside a fresh grave, reading the burial rites. Around him stood the mourners, their heads bowed.
“So she died,” said Gustav.
“She died,” said Rudolf. “I would have taken her to a doctor, but she sent me away. And when I heard that she was sick, here at Malo–I wrote to her twice, but she never answered. I could not go to her without her permission–she would not have wanted that.”
“What could a doctor have done?” asked Gustav. “Given her medicine? Who knows what it would have done–to her. Or cut her open, and found–what? Would she have had a heart, like a woman? Or would she have had–what a tree has?”
“He could have done something,” said Rudolf.
“I doubt it. How do you save a fairytale?”
“And so we commit her body to the ground, as ashes return to ashes and dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her, the Lord give her peace. Amen,” said the priest. The funeral was over.
The mourners lifted their heads and looked at the two men. Later, when Gustav described it to his wife, sitting by their fire at home in Gretz, he shivered. “It was as though someone had thrown cold water at me. A shock, and then a sensation like water trickling down my back, as long as they continued to look at me. So many of them at once.” Girls from the cafés and dance halls of Karelstad, some in silk stockings and fur stoles and hats that perched on their heads like birds that had landed at rakish angles, some in mended gloves and threadbare coats. Girls who acted in films, or modeled for artists, or waited tables until a gentleman friend came along. Slim, pale, glamorous, with dark circles under their eyes.
They walked out of the graveyard, passing the two men. Several nodded at Rudolf as they passed and one of them stopped for a moment, put her hand on his lapel, and said, “You were good to her.” Then they walked away along the muddy road in their high heels, whispering together like leaves in a forest.
“Good morning, Baron,” said the priest. “Would you like to see the stone? It’s exactly as you ordered.” They walked over and looked. There was no name on the stone, only the word:
“I’m surprised, Father,” said Gustav.
“Why, because she lies in holy ground? God created the forests before He created Adam. She is His creature, just as you are, my son.”
“Then you believe she had a soul?” asked Gustav.
“I wouldn’t say that. But I’ve worked with these–young ladies for many years. We have a mission for them in the city. They go there, like moths to a flame. They can’t help themselves. It’s something in their nature. The priest that served here before me–your father knew him, Baron, old Father Dominik–told me that once, when the forest was larger than it is now and the cities were smaller, it was not so dangerous for them. A farmer would come upon them and they would force him to dance all night. He would find his way home the next morning, with his shoes worn out and no great harm done, although his wife or sweetheart might be angry. But now the forest is logged by the timber companies, and the cities glow all night with electric lights. They go to Karelstad and the theater managers hire them, or the film directors, and eventually they become sick. It’s as though a cancer eats them up inside, draws the life, the brightness, out of them. They die young.”
“Did I kill her?” asked Rudolf. It was the first thing he had said since entering the graveyard. “Did going back a second time make her sick again?”
“I can’t tell you that,” said the priest.
“But I loved her,” he said, as though to himself. “I wonder if that matters.”
“It mattered to her,” said the priest.
“Father,” said Gustav, “what will happen to those girls, if the war comes?”
The priest looked at the gravestone for a moment. “I don’t know. But you must remember that they’ve survived. The Romans wrote of the puellae albae who lived in the forests of Sylvania. A thousand years ago, they were here. We’re no good for them, with our motor cars, phonographs, electric lights. Tanks won’t be any better. Father Dominik thought there were fewer of them, after the last war. But as long as the forest remains, they’ll be here. Or so I prefer to believe. And as long as they’re here, Sylvania will be here, in some fashion.”
The two men walked back along the path, without speaking. Then, “What will you do now?” asked Gustav.
“Have breakfast. Send my wife and son to France. Fight the Germans.”
“Sausage and eggs?”
“Do you ever think of anything other than immediate pleasures?”
“Frequently, and I always regret it.”
Rudolf Arnheim laughed. A flock of wood doves, startled, flew up into the air, their wings flashing in the light of the risen sun.
More from Theodora Goss: