“Simple Motions” by Paul Nikolov, Reykjavik

BLOG,Crime and Punishment August 25, 2011 07:00


as shared at a PenTales event themed “The End”

“Tell me the story,” Sophie asks, her head sunk deep into her pillow, shading the sides of her face from the tiny nightlight lamp with the cheery orange shade. The blanket is tucked up tight around her chin. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at her. As bright as her eyes are when she asks for the story, I know that at some point in its telling, she will fall asleep. She always does.

I’d discovered the story in a book store downtown that I visited on my way home from work one evening. After about twenty minutes of browsing, I saw a book of Russian folk tales and flipped to a story about an old king, a talking horse, a firebird, the Queen of the East, and a woefully unlucky knight named Ivan Tsarevich. That evening, after tucking Sophie in to bed, she asked for a story, and so I told her this one.

It’s a meandering story that knots upon itself several times. In a nutshell, Ivan Tsarevich is a helpless protagonist being tormented with quests from a spiteful king, a talking horse – Ivan’s partner – who is the brains of the outfit, and the Queen of the East is the mutual love interest of Ivan and the king. The firebird is just there because it’s a Russian folk tale. Ivan completes the quests, gets the girl and the king dies, thanks to the horse, a master of both psychology and magic. It’s the purest form of folk tale, as there’s no morality in it. The innocent (if not the good) triumph, and evil is defeated, but only because a talking horse was there to see it through.

The first time I told it, Sophie was asleep about a third of the way in. After a couple of weeks she was able to stay up half way through, and here, she plateaued – she’s never awake after that point. But I continue telling the story anyway, all the way to the end. It seems kind of like cheating to get up and leave the room before the story’s even finished, just because she fell asleep.

One night, after Sophie had fallen asleep, I get near the end and decide to add an old witch, who lives in a tiny cabin in the woods, and the horse doesn’t make the potion himself – he gets it from her. The next night, there’s a talking snow owl, and the Queen of the East doesn’t live at the bottom of the sea – she lives in an iceberg palace, and the snow owl is the courier of Ivan’s arrival.

Night after night, new characters are added, and the story is adjusted to accommodate them – a wolf will materialize in the tundra like condensing frost, and the landscape of the story warps a little bit more. The story turns in front of my eyes, suspended in the dim orange light from the tiny lamp, witnessed by the books on her table, the clothes hanging in the open closet, the pile of stuffed animals in the corner. Its growth and transformation accelerate as the months go by, and before long it no longer resembles the original version. The talking horse, the king, the Queen of the East, and Ivan Tsarevich are lost in a sea of witches, warriors, lepers, traveling priests, owls, and magicians. It takes all my attention just to hold it together. I get lost in it.

This is why I don’t really hear the knock on the bedroom door at first, thinking I’m imagining it. But then it gets louder. Snapped back with a force like falling backwards into a lake, I get up to answer the door. Out of focus, it’s not until I open the door that it occurs to me there’s not supposed to be anybody else in the house.

Standing there is a man in his late twenties, with absurdly good looks, like a comic book superhero. He’s wearing an iron, dome-shaped helmet, a tunic and cape of dark brown fur, gray woolen pants and black fur boots. There’s a wide leather belt around his waist, upon which hangs a sword in its scabbard. He looks at once impatient, exhausted and pissed. Pushing past me noiselessly, he sits on Sophie’s bedside table. I know right away who he is, and I have a pretty good feeling I know why he’s here.

“I want you to stop it,” he says. I was right. I have nothing to say in my defense. “I’ve been living that story, every single time, the same way, over and again, for hundreds of years. And I like it that way. Do you understand me?”

“I- I’m sorry,” I manage. “I just-”

“I don’t care,” he snaps, looks at Sophie, and says in a whisper, “I want you to change it back to the way it was. You’ve turned my world into a living hell. Stop it. Change it back.”

A sharp pain in my lower back wakes me up, and dawn’s light pierces through when I open my eyes. I’d slept on the floor of Sophie’s bedroom. My neck is stiff. I pull myself to my feet. There’s still another hour before she needs to wake up, so I decide to take a shower. When I close my eyes while I rinse the shampoo from my hair, I can see Ivan sitting on the bedside table, staring right through me, smelling vaguely of a campfire.

After dropping Sophie off at school, I drive to work. As usual, traffic is terrible, hundreds of us crawling along the beltway. I turn on the radio, which is already tuned to a talk radio station. This morning they’re talking about the mayor’s latest proposal, something about closing the zoo to make way for a new wing of the mall, and a caller is upset, but I’m not paying attention anyway, because I’ve got my laptop open and I’m going over some documents e-mailed to me from the consulate yesterday. Routine stuff, really – another lengthy schedule for the next week of arriving diplomats, meetings between different mid-level foreign ministry officials, and conferences with local businesses and organizations. I begin coordinating the schedules of different people at the consulate, making sure there are no conflicts. There aren’t, as always, as it’s the job of these people to attend meetings and conferences. By the time we’ve made our way through the bottleneck caused by the highway repairs that have been going on all summer, I know that I only have about an hour’s worth of work left to do once I get to the office, as usual, which should free up the rest of the day for responding to regular e-mail queries from tourists, businessmen, and immigration hopefuls.

I pull into my assigned parking spot and walk into the lobby, smile at the two security guards, hand them my car keys, and walk through the metal detector. I walk past the receptionist with another smile, to the elevator, pass my card over the infra-red scanner, and the doors open soundlessly. I get off at the fourth floor, walk to my office, turn on the computer, and settle in. A few minutes later, my supervisor walks in.

“Alex,” she says. I look up. She seems nervous. She always looks nervous to some degree. But she hesitates before continuing. “How are you, Alex?” she asks with a forced smile.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say. “And you?”

“Fine, thanks. I have some news for you. I’ve hired an assistant to help you.”

Her smile seems to say that I’m supposed to consider this good news.

“Oh. OK.” My pulse quickens a bit.

“I know you’ve got your vacation coming up on Monday, so I thought you could do with someone to do the more mundane tasks while you’re away. He’ll be screening the e-mails, doing the forwarding, answering the phone. Anything he’s not sure about, he’ll pass on to me.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“When you get back,” she continues, “we’ll be scaling him back to part time hours, but he’ll still be here Monday through Friday.”

“That’s great. Thanks a lot.”

“He’ll be in at ten and work until three. I’d like you to give him the nickel tour and get him started. If anything comes up, just drop me a line. Sound good?”

“Yeah. Thanks very much.”

“Great,” she smiles, and walks away.

The assistant, Peter, arrives a little before ten, dressed in a suit and tie. He’s young, like fresh-out-of-university young. Probably has his eye on consulate work overseas. It turns out, whatever Peter’s ambitions are, he learns fast, works efficiently, and hits it off great with the others. The hour of actual work I had left is gone: Peter essentially does my job, as I knew he would from the start. I start outlining possible meetings the consulate could coordinate in the future, hoping that going through the steps of arranging such events will be perceived as productive and necessary work, but I can’t really focus on what I’m doing. Just the sight of Peter reminds me of my dispensability, which I’m certain will become clear to everyone else in a matter of days. I leave my desk at the end of the day exhausted, my stomach roiling from worry. I walk to the elevator, pass my card over the infra-red scanner, and go down to the lobby. I smile at the receptionist, say, “See you tomorrow,” and say the same to the two security guards as I hand them my car keys and walk through the metal detector. I drive home in a foul mood.

I park the car, go up the stairs to my apartment, lie down on the couch and try to relax. That night, after tucking Sophie into bed, I tell her the story of the Owl and the Pussycat, an old favorite of hers. We both sleep soundly that night.

The next day at work, a Friday, which is usually a pretty calm day, Peter forwards me an e-mail from the office of the Mongolian representative to the UN, requesting an urgent meeting with our ambassador. It’s a troubling request from a confusing source. And the timing is terrible – the ambassador is actually in Day Two of an eight-day cruise of the Antarctic coast on board an icebreaker registered to Australia. I see my options at once. Getting in touch with the Australian Coast Guard and arranging a helicopter and then a flight won’t be much of a problem. But this means I need to get a direct line to the ambassador.

It takes me the rest of the day to get patched through, faxing credentials, waiting on shift changes and the search for information. It’s a nerve-wracking and frustrating ordeal, forcing me to shift gears abruptly between pleading, shouting, and cajoling, depending on who I’m talking to. Peter calmly types away at his desk, doing the rest of my job. When I finally do reach the ambassador, his voice is almost entirely overpowered by static, feedback or wind, I can’t be sure which. I tell him the situation, and he tells me to make an appointment for when he gets back. A two-sentence e-mail, sent within seconds of the call’s end. Fucking Christ, I think, six hours for that.

Back on the beltway home, I’m even more exhausted than I was the previous day. I can barely hold my attention on the road. Letting the tinny chatter of the radio fade, taking deep breaths to relax, a narrow shaft of light suddenly shoots up through the haze of the day’s dust in my head. And I can see him from here: it’s Ivan. Right now, he’s sitting by his child’s bed in Russia, telling my story, and he’s added a new assistant and some Mongolian big shot. Despite the fact that I stopped telling his story altogether, Ivan has decided to issue some punitive measures, and he might have changes planned for tomorrow, or the day after that. It’s a thought that makes me feel queasy. When I get home, Sophie asks me if she can stay the night at Maria’s, a friend of hers she met at summer camp who lives in the suburbs outside of town. I’m very tired, but she really has her heart set on it, so I agree. She calls Maria and tells her the good news. They’re both enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting again, as they hadn’t seen each other in over two months. We eat the chicken from last night’s dinner, get in the car, and head to Maria’s neighborhood. By the time we get there, the sun has gone down.

Maria lives in a suburban neighborhood so newly built that in front of some of the houses you can still see the lines between the belts of turf that were laid down for the lawns. The houses are supposed to look like a modern take on the classic Victorian, but end up as just a slightly more appealing version of Levittown models. Clean, cheerful, and blank. Very much like the suburban development I grew up in. In high school, when the weather was nice, I would sometimes sneak out of the house at night and just walk the streets, looking at the dark houses, letting their silence blow through me with consoling alone-ness.

After I drop Sophie off at Maria’s I head back home. I ease onto the couch and turn on the television, but can’t concentrate on what I’m watching, finding myself snapping back into focus when a character raises her voice, or a gun is fired, wondering what I’ve missed. I keep going back to my teenage summer night walks in the suburbs. These houses dark at last, silent in the night, innocent as a sleeping hornet’s nest. Unable to concentrate by the time I’m half of the way through the second movie, I get dressed and head down to my car.

I drive back to Maria’s neighborhood, pull over at a patch of curb as identical as any of the others, and park the car. I open the glove compartment and take out the pack of menthol cigarettes I keep in a Tupperware container, get out of the car, and start to walk.

I’m amazed at how readily the feeling comes back to me. Monolithic houses steetlamp-lit, black windows. The night is an old woman that walks the earth. The day is made merely of the hours when the sun’s light reaches us, and is far from this place. I turn corners without aim, slowly; smoking and singing softly to myself, in lieu of the portable tape player I used to carry at times like this about twenty years ago. The Police’s Synchronicity was a favorite for a while, I remember. Even played at a very low volume, the music shone silvery through the darkness.

I come to a house that has one light on, an upstairs bedroom window. I catch my breath.

When I was very young, I used to love returning from visits to relatives in the next state, because it would mean driving home at night. Many stretches of the road ran through sparsely populated farmland. Sometimes, if I was lucky, we would be driving for miles and miles through a night of patchy forest, corn fields and hills and suddenly, there would be a house by the side of the road with one light on inside. I would strain to see what was going on inside that room, but the car would whip past, back into the rural night. I would be left imagining what someone would be doing in that one room, brightly lit, small, contained, at the bottom of an ocean of darkness. And now this house sat before me, only I wasn’t speeding past it. I was standing right in front of it, and I could walk past it or see what’s going on inside that room.

I walk onto the lawn of the house and into the back yard. The back door is unlocked. Taking a deep breath, I step inside.

It’s dark and quiet in the kitchen. The green digital display of the time – 4:03 – shines on the oven. I step slowly into the living room, and find the stairs to my right. As I climb, I hear the murmur of a man’s voice behind one of the doors upstairs. Reaching the hallway, lit by a single low-watt table lamp, I walk towards the door I hear the voice coming from, stopping just outside of it. I turn my head, carefully putting my ear to the door.

“The next day, when he went to work,” says the voice softly, “he found that two men from Human Resources had been sent to the consulate to do employee evaluations. Alex knew that meant only one thing: someone was going to get sacked. Fortunately, Peter was out sick that day, so he would have plenty to do, but the evaluators would undoubtedly discover that the part-timer was capable of doing the work of a full time employee, albeit one who’d been with the consulate for eight years so far.”

I knock on the door, quietly.

The voice stops talking. I hear cautious footsteps. The door opens. It’s a slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a bald spot, wearing a V-neck tee and boxer shorts. A car drives past outside, techno music dopplering briefly through the house, jarringly loud, and then the night’s silence snaps back into place. He nods his head. “Alright,” he says with a quiet sigh. “I’ll stop it. It’s the only thing that makes her go to sleep. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been thinking about writing all this down one day.”

“Do that now,” I say. “And then don’t ever change it again.”

He nods his consent, and starts to close the door. Then I stop him.

“Wait,” I say. “What’s your name?”

“Jim,” he says, cautiously. “Why?”

“Just seems like the polite thing to do,” I say, extending my hand, “Alex.”

“Yeah,” he says, shaking it.

I find my way to the car and drive back home, slump heavily into my room, my legs aching, and collapse onto my bed with my clothes and shoes on. I can faintly hear the hiss of cars speeding along the highway not far from here.

When I dream at all, which happens some nights, it’s always a portion of the same story. In it’s complete form, I’m standing on the beach on a beautiful day, watching the waves. I suddenly feel the ground move and I know at once that I can feel the turning of the earth. My feet suddenly fly out from under me; the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation flinging me out of the atmosphere. I stretch out my fingers to greet the stars.

1 Comment

  • admin

    Welcome to Day4 of GOSSIP Week! Paul’s “Simple Motions” takes yesterday’s concept of Gossip shaping the lives of others to its fantastic extreme, a direction I try to tend toward as a policy. In Paul’s world, Alex doesn’t influence the lives of others, but dictates them, and vice versa. I love the story for its combination of creative imagination with real complex emotion. It evokes ancient beliefs about the power of words and the idea that when we say something we, in some sense, make it so; as well Bohr’s scientific question of the Observer Effect (Too much?). In case you can’t tell, lets just say I find the concept fascinating. When we choose to tell someone’s story, instead of letting them tell it, how much are we affecting that story itself? What are the power of words? If you tell enough people something, does that make it true? Have you ever started a rumor that got out of hand? Or heard one? Have you ever felt controlled by Gossip?