Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online
Authors: Adrienne Celt
By the same author
The Donne School: History and Legacy
, by R. B. Stinson
Donne Girls Spring Into a New Role
God Save the Motherless Child?
An Oral History of Vera Orlov, nÃ©e Volkov
An Oral History of Vera Orlov, nÃ©e Volkov, cont'd
Excerpt of a letter from Vera Orlov to Robert Horne of Horne Publishing
An Oral History of Vera Orlov, nÃ©e Volkov, cont'd
This collection of papers was assembled as a project of the Donne School Alumnae Society of Goslings, from statewide archives, 1984.
The project was funded by a posthumous grant from one of the Donne School's most generous benefactors, Mrs. Vera Orlov (n
e Volkov), who wished, she said, for the research to make a definitive historical mark. After the tragic death of her husband, the writer Leo Orlovâwho taught briefly at the Donne School in the days preceding his murder in 1931âMrs. Orlov returned to her family home in France, but remained a dedicated supporter of the school.
The section of Mrs. Orlov's will that earmarked this money for the Society of Goslings also bequeathed a number of documents, many still in probate. One important document, however, arrived alongside the funding: a diary seemingly written by the young Donne School employee Zoe Andropov, who died under hotly debated circumstances the same year as Mr. Orlov. Its presence in Mrs. Orlov's possessions remains a point of inquiry, especially as documentation about Mrs. Orlov herself remains in such short supply.
This diary, along with a previously unseen package of correspondence written by Mr. Orlov, forms the backbone of the enclosed research. The findings are separated into three main categories: Ms. Andropov's diary (under the section heading “Zoya”), Mr. Orlov's letters (under the section heading “Lev”), and all other primary or secondary source documents (newspaper clippings, police reports, interviews, et cetera), with editorial notes as appropriate. The documents in the second and third categories have been included wherever they were found in Ms. Andropov's diary,
or else wherever the Gosling alumnae felt they would offer the most useful perspective.
The personal records in this collection make frequent use of Russian name variations, patronymics, and diminutives, and these, for disambiguation, are listed here:
: also referred to as Lev, Lev Orlov, and Leo (or Lev) Pavlovich Orlov
: also referred to as Renka, Verenka, Vera Orlova, Verena Petrovna Volkova, and Vera Volkova
: also referred to as Zoya and Zoya Ivanovna Andropova
We hope that readers find this project to be in keeping with the institution's mission of honesty, clarity, and revelation.
Editor's note: All entries from this diary appear to have been written between June and July of 1931
Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. Noâlet me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly. There's a fireplace here in the cabin where I'm staying, complete with an iron grate and a long pair of tongs, and I've been practicing every night with bits of driftwood, though it makes me over-warm. Summer air, hot blaze. The New Jersey coastal breeze not enough of a balm to keep sweat from rolling down my forehead. I'm reminded of my childhood in Lipetsk, how even on sweltering nights we had to set bonfires in order to do away with the weeds in the sugar beet fields, and there were always two or three spots charred black amidst the green leaves. I was good at it then, striking the match in just the right place. My father would rumple my hair with his enormous, practical hands, and my mother would gather me up in her skirts as I ran away from the burning brush. But it's been years since I had reason to do more than light the stove to put on a kettle.
I wanted to make sure I could still arrange the heat, maximize the incendiary consequences. So I've been crumpling paper balls to varying degrees of tightness, stacking logs in a crisscross pattern, then
log cabinâstyle, then teepee. Once, a gust of wind blew down the chimney at just the right moment, and the whole pile went up with a
, throwing me backwards and singeing my eyelashes. I've been trying to re-create it ever since.
Maybe I'm too worried about the diary. After all, this cabinâsmall and shingled, cheap but sufficientâwasn't rented in my name. I'm a ghost here, same as every occupant who's come and gone, invited for the weekend to enjoy the brisk delicacies of the eastern seaboard and leaving promptly on the Monday train. Everyone who's dipped their toes in the waves and then come back in to wrap a sweater round their shoulders. I'mâsay, a photo in a lost locket, dropped between some godforsaken floorboards. No one will think to look for me here, and so they won't look for the diary either.
But. Why not burn it, just to be safe? Already I've burned my ties to home, to the school and all the people I knew there. All the people I loved. Why not these pages too? My aim, anyway, is not posterity, but instead to take a sharp, bright pin and use it to bore a holeâone might say a pinprickâin the swollen history that rests on my shoulders. If I don't let out some of that air, I think I will go mad, or at the very least confess to someone unwise. And she would not like that. I think she would not let me. Little Vera with her tall shoes, her black hair, her long and perfect nose.
I took her husband. Or at the very least I tried. Many afternoons he took me, whether out in the garden or in the hazy light of my bedroom, always filtered through the screen I placed in front of my window to offer privacy while changing. He sniffed me out in whatever room I happened to occupy, or whatever restaurant in our small shared city where I might have been tucking into a pork cutlet and sipping a glass of sweet white wine. Once he approached me from behind in a very nice place, and bent down in full view of the room to smell my neck. I felt the soft skin of his appendage brush against the nub of my spine, felt the small hairs there pulled upright in thrall to his breathing. The knife dropped from my handâjust a short ways, but it hit the plate with a crash, chipping off a small bit of china and turning the subcurrent of attention in the restaurant into a mass of unabashed stares. By the time I gathered myself to turn
around, though, he'd disappeared, leaving behind him only the soft ping of the bell at the top of the door.
You'll think (you! I suppose I have to imagine someone to talk to as I write, a sympathetic ear. Though even you I picture with a hint of disapproval, listening more for the tickle than the truth) that I only want to confess this passion. The affair. Stolen hours, eyes meeting across some distance and fizzing with sin. People love broken rules, after all. The rise of a pesky, risk-taking underdog. We have, on the whole, so little of our own that when we rip things from the hands of the ruling class they take on new value, offering us a reflected glow. I knew this every time I met him, my Lev, my life. I knew that the oblong of his head and the irony of his eyebrows would have meant nothing to me if he were young and poor and free. If I hadn't read his work for years, first in periodicals and then in volumes, and hadn't already loved his mind, slept with his books pressed between my knees for safekeeping. I knew he belonged to Vera when he came to me, came for me, came into my hands as if dropped there by parachute. And it's true, his unavailability only made me hold him tighter.
But I have no need to exorcise his possession of me from my mind. It's what Vera did that threatens to sink me. And to get it right, to tell it whole, I have to start at the beginning.
First: an apartment in Moscow, where my mother gave birth to me on the kitchen floor because she could not get to the hospital in time. Neighbor women, hearing her screams, ran in to help and turned the room into a grimly efficient medical theatre, with water boiling on the stove and sterilized cooking forceps at the ready. They coached her, offering bits of crushed ice, shoulder massages, compliments. “
” the women cried, and then they peeked between her legs and decided it was time to push, counting up to the moment of crisis. “
” Most of them had been through the same thing themselves, and when my head emerged the oldest woman gripped it firmly with the
forceps and tugged. She showed no hesitation, and sometimes when I'm over-tired I still rub the small indentations she made behind my ears.
My father, offering around vodka we couldn't afford and rolling cigarette after cigarette, was ecstatic at this vision of communal spirit. When one of the women, herself eight months pregnant, went into sympathetic labor and had to be hustled away, he applauded her out the door and strolled back in shaking his head with pride and flicking his dark hair away from his eyes. He and my mother had come to Moscow from the fields of the Lipetsk Oblast, following my father's revolutionary tendencies and his faith in the common man. They still went back to Lipetsk in the summers, for the harvestâhe wasn't formally tied to the land, but he believed in it: the soul of the earth, and the brotherhood of the field workers. He believed less so, of course, in the noble estate that crushed the workers and profited from their laborâthis, my father had privately sworn to dismantle. But we needed the money, you see.
In Moscow, he drove a taxi part-time, leaving him ample opportunity to attend secret meetings and contribute his ideas to unpublished manifestos, or else to walk around the house half-drunk, gloating about the coming ascendancy of the peasant class. In boisterous moods he threatened to wrestle things: a pony chained up in the park with ribbons tied all through its mane, a friend's large dog, a hedge shaped like an elephant. But beneath the surface of his voluminous personality, my father was a clever man. Instead of picking fights in the street or talking out of turn to aristocrats, as many of his radical friends were only too happy to do, he chose to work quietly, tirelessly, behind the scenes, for a revolution he was sure would change everything. The poor would rise up and make ours a better world; the rich would cede, or die, he said. And I wanted so much for him to be right, for some snap of our collective fingers to polish my shoes and fill the kitchen with rich aromas, transform my little bed with eiderdown. Maybe not quite the change he intended, but still. Small problems never fazed my father, because history was on his side. When the taxi he shared was broken into and ransacked, the seats stolen for who knows what purpose, his co-owners Dmitri and Misha collapsed into a
deep despair. But my father simply found a set of folding chairs to install in the car and went about his business.
I know all this because it was a famous story in our household, his zeal and my violent birth, always illustrated with a gesture to the bloodstained kitchen parquet. The family news,
. Besides one another it was all we had, really, and, looking back, I would have traded it for a pair of new shoes and a comfortable winter hatâtraded it without a second thoughtâbut I didn't have that choice. I was a child. My mother snorted at my father's talk of a glorious future, rolled her eyes, but she also wove her fingers between his and squeezed. Even the day I was born, as she lay on the floor in a pool of her own blood, she let him stroke her hair while she pushed and be the first one to hold me after the neighbor women wiped me clean. “A true child of the revolution,” he called me. “A child of ideals.” Whatever that meant. I wishâI remember a time when I felt his words as magic, vibration. I remember thinking that he would change the world, give me everything, just by wanting to. Where has that girl gone? Where did she run off to?
These days I try to keep my mind away from Moscowâthinking about it is too painful, a scar that burns to the touch. But sometimes I can't help drifting back there. To the crib where I slept in our tiny apartment, before the harvest began and after it ended. Our city home. We didn't have a dacha we could escape to for summers in the country, no short brick wall surrounding a garden of grass and trees. No small yard buxom with flowers or little house with a wood-burning stove. No banya out back, thick with steam, and for that matter no grandmother to soak birch branches in a plastic bucket and hit my naked skin while we bathed to improve my circulation. Not like the better families. Instead, we had a field of sugar beets in Lipetsk, and it wasn't even really our field. The region dated back to the Tatars, and my mother said we were bred to it by blood. Obligated
in our servitude, if not to the landlord then still to the soil and the trees, to generations of seeds sprouted there, and all the rooty flesh boiled into sweets and sold for someone else's benefit. Sometimes when we were there, she pointed to the landlord's family riding by in the distance on their pretty horses and told me there was no reason I shouldn't follow their example of nobility and pride. But she said it while we knelt in the dirt with sweat pouring off our faces. No wonder I preferred the high-rise in Moscow, however heavy the air was there, however many dogs roamed the streets outside and crawled onto the trolleybuses in search of scraps. At least in Moscow there were times when I felt freeâfree, if nothing else, to make my own mistakes.
My crib stood under our living room window, and sometimes the heavy curtains got caught up in the bars along with threads of heavy city light. I always made it worse, pulling the dusty blackout brocade and twisting it around my fingers until the curtain rod buckled underneath my weight and the rings clacked together. My mother would sweep in then to scold me, clucking. Swat my fingers and give me a kiss on the head before disappearing again through the kitchen door. Most of the time my parents left me alone, though, working at one thing or another. I had a soft rabbit that I rubbed against my cheek for comfort. A terribly sweet feeling. Little nubs of fabric fur, its nose made hard by thick embroidery. I caressed myself, ran the long ears up and down my arms. Tossed the toy to the end of my bed and picked it back up with my toes. I can still feel the rabbit tucked under my shirt, pressed hard against my beating heart. As a child, I had muddled ideas about pregnancy and believed that this was where women carried their babies. Curled behind the ribs for safety.
One day as I idly passed the rabbit's face across my own, one of the eyes popped off from wear. It was a black sphere with a hole through it for thread. Smooth to the touch. I remember being glad that it was round on every side: I'd sometimes wondered if the eyes had flat backs, and the idea had disturbed me. Children love their verisimilitude. The surface of the bead was scratchedâprobably my fault, from the way I tossed that doll around. But it was black all the way through, and the scratches looked
raw, almost as if they could be smoothed back together. I put the rabbit's eye into my mouth, thinking it might melt there.
That, of course, did not happen. Though what did seemed just as remarkable to me, then. I clutched the bead between my teeth, and my mouth watered, the water seeming to flow directly from the little eye. It made me feel strong, but also afraid, like I was rising and sinking all at once. The darkness of the bead made me think it had no beginning or end; perhaps I was half-sleeping, and the feeling was half dream.
My mother made a sound in the kitchen. A metal spoon clattering into a pan. I looked up and saw her turn towards my crib, checking to see if the commotion had woken me. Her eyes met mine, and seeing the tenderness of her concern, I wanted to ask her, beg her, to help me. But I had no words for what was wrong. She came in and put a hand on my head, her palm wet from cookery. “
,” she told me, petting my hair. Everything is alright. “
.” Sleep, now. I swallowed the bead. Then, under my mother's soft gesture, I lay back down and clutched my rabbit, stomach roiling. In my childish way I knew that I would never get the eye out of me now. It would spin behind my heart, and it would give birth to something. God knows when, and God knows what.
That was the beginning of me.
But I want to talk about Vera. The little face hovering over my shoulder, even when she isn't there. I want to examine the places where the line of her life passed over mine, where we crissed and crossed or ran at a distant parallel, so I can figure out how I got to where I am. Moscow to the New Jersey shoreline: hardly a straight trajectory.
I knew Vera when we were young. Before I came to America, before any of that. Not that she'd have admitted the associationâeven after the revolution she was out of my league by ten thousand paces. A girl with a riding crop in her hand, a girl who snuck cigarettes from soldiers and wore
a new gown for the season's every occasion. Her family was pure White Russianâthe rich old guardâbut even so I'm sure that all the soldiers courted her when they could. The Bolshevik Reds were still red-blooded, after all, and no one could resist a girl like that. Invited to everything, wanted everywhere. She played piano at her parents' parties, looking up from underneath her dark eyebrows with a smile that each man in the room hoped was their secret. Lev told me that in her teen years, when it was fashionable, she wrote poetry for exile magazines and did translations by candlelight. Set typescript until her fingertips were black with ink.