The Unholy Family
When I received the Tsar’s invitation for a visit to Rossland and a command performance, I was as relieved as the woman whose baby came white. Travel letters from California, and a subsequent book on the California experiment would have been all well and good, but the real jewel in my literary crown would be impressions of the Tsar and his tin pot empire. As a rule, journalists were as welcome in Rossland as typhoid fever, but my two book-length efforts had apparently elevated me to the status of a novelist. No more a Shklovsky, exiled to write about the fishing in Minsk—I was now a Tolstoy, honored and admired and safe enough to be let into the capitol city. I had felt very smug, two weeks ago, anticipating the solid blows I would land on the body politic of tyranny, bragging to that against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand. I even thought I would do a bit of business in photographic chemicals for Jaime Rodolpho, cementing my association with the photo-engraving genius.
But Rossland had turned out to be largely a feudal swamp, mired in the past, inefficient and backwards. And the Tsar and his minions had apparently forgotten me. No one to meet the train, no hotel reservation, no booking agent in sight. Like the unholy family, we slunk into town with humbled crest, knocking fruitlessly on every inn door, me as Joseph, Marina as Mary, and John a very premature and precocious Christ Child. I was left on my own like a cub reporter fresh off the boat, forced to scrounge for a bunk and buy my own drinks.
Marina was at a loss, embarrassed once again by her betters in this horrible country.
“We telegraphed ahead with all our particulars.”
“This place is a dump,” I said, referring to the basement room she had rented, the street outside, greater Sakrametska, and the entire Northwest Empire. I dropped my satchel on one of the narrow beds, creating a jangle of springs and stirring up a musty smell. Sargent said something about mushrooms growing in the corner.
“At least it will be cooler here,” Marina said with a sniff. She picked up her own bag and started up the stairs on the long climb to her garret.
Sargent and I unpacked, fighting for space between the beds and in the narrow cupboard that served as a wardrobe.
“There’s barely room enough to swing a cat in here,” I said, “but not vigorously, and not with entire security to the cat.”
Sargent said nothing. Not even a chuckle. I believe he was practicing that virtue so many mothers teach their children: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” He shoved his half-full bag under his bed, grabbed his sketchbook and a straw hat, and left without a word.
I was glad to be alone. I stretched out on the bed in socks and shirtsleeves, closed my eyes, and set to work restoring my sunny disposition by meditating on my many excellent qualities, the failings of my enemies, and the hope of revenge in future.
I was asleep almost immediately. I dreamed I was in the pilot house of a Mississippi steamboat, pushing upstream in low water, beset on all sides by snags and sandbars, no clear path ahead and not the foggiest notion of the whereabouts of the channel.
“Mark? Wake up. You’re having a bad dream.” It was Marina, sitting on Sargent’s bed, poking me, leaning over me so close I could see tiny beads of perspiration on her brow at the hairline. The top two buttons of her shift were undone and she was glowing with the heat of the day.
I was confused for a moment, still dreamy, and I took her hand. She brushed a lock of my hair off my brow, leaned over further, and kissed me. However many times this had happened in my imagination, I was still unprepared for the enormity of the act in reality. I rejoiced in my good fortune and kissed her back. Events unfolded in the usual way, given the weakness of the flesh, and I forgot all about the Tsar, his piddling empire, and my poor mother stuck on the steamboat.
© Patrick Fanning, 2012