Meditations on dear Petrov

by Susan Tepper


(Set in nineteenth-century Russia during a time of war)




All night the guns echo off the mountain.  I am your partner and your slave in this collusion.  The sound seems so near.  As if it were you come stomping up my path.  Unexpected.  Unexplained.  Banging the filth of war from your boots.  Blood of untold secrets clamped between your teeth.  How many days and nights, dear Petrov.  Is it a matter of a lifetime spent.  Used up. Folded like your tent when your regiment moves on.  My body has gone to powder.  Entombed like the mummies.  Long ago on a pleasant day you spoke of Egypt.  We strolled. The sage bright in its purple glory.  Yet again death ruled our conversation.  But not our death that day.  Ours is a cold death.  The snows have covered many houses.  Does your tent collapse and die under the snows.  Then what is to be.  You must die with it.  Along with your comrades.  Surviving the guns to be buried under the Russian winter.  A cruel irony.  Born in such a place.  I lie on the straw mattress under my eiderdown saying the prayers.  My horse with me in this room.  His heat the only heat.  Neighing and my prayers that mingle.  Sound.  The only other living being.


Cast from molten steel a girl named after a male saint.  I never gave it any thought.  Salt being salt.  I slept on the river bank during clement weather.  My father didn’t come searching.  Encased in his misery.  Grieving my mother ‘til his own death.  Preposterous name some people claimed as I grew into a young woman.  I didn’t understand.  My mother chose this name. In the manner of all things fine.  Yet I never hear it whispered from your lips.  Even spat in an accursed way when a thing annoys you.  I hear nothing, dear Petrov.  Melting back in shadows cast by the stairs.  Darkly dancing.  Spinning.  Climbing toward what was forbidden.  War has decoded that mystery.  Women such as I.  Admired. Welcomed. Showered with gifts and perfumes.  Gowns folded in silken boxes.  Bouquets.  Flamboyant hats feathers high as the low branches.  And waltzes. I have heard stories of these wonderments.  Candle lit rooms where music transforms.  No longer beasts.  Opulence.  I would prefer to hear my name.  Spoken softly.  Across the breadth of my body.  Lips.  Tongue.  Saying my name.  My skin the flesh of peaches you once remarked.  Any which way.


The room faces onto a sea.  Promenade to stroll.  Floral bouquets bursting out of large stone pots.  Roman style.  I’ve seen them in books.  Now moldering in this house.  Once vital. Orange and yellow and pink blooms.  Flowers that don’t flourish in a harsh climate.  And walkways.  To contemplate the sea.  One entire wall of windows in this room.  Odd magic. The sea beyond is a blue-gray.  Flat as a piano key.  Soundless.  Strange to see no birds swooping for fish.  A room of glass here in this cold.  Land of war and death.  What is the logic, dear Petrov.  Only one bed in the room.  Spare of other furnishings.  Bed pushed in a corner.  Already occupied.  I wonder where I will sleep tonight.  A man and woman on the bed in the throes of love.  Mindless of me standing close by.  They are fully clothed.  I notice she isn’t especially pretty.  Would this woman appeal to your tastes.  Their eyes seem to follow me.  I notice a tall door in a wall next to the glass.  Similar to a barn door.  Smaller.  But clean and white and shiny.  Leading out.  My heart leaps forward with my step.  Pushing it open I emerge into misty wet warmth. Flowers in big pots filling my nostrils.  Dampening my skin.  So unlike this cold place.  When I reach to shut the door behind me there is no way back.


The river will take anyone.  No payment required.  Its banks are welcoming shoals.  Step in step in.  Shoes filled with sand then the soft slip under.  Solitary.  Last few seconds.  Do they try and breathe.  I ponder this while floating on my back.  Cold river water.  Summer arrived late.  The drowsing at windows.  Flies buzzing food.  So little time before the huff of winter returns.  I feel the water holding me high and dream of rapture.  Hands.  Silk and satin.  Fur muff and hat with impossibly bright feathers.  Everything perfumed.  Stalking.  The earth to the sun.  Furious.  Flowers poised on long mushy stems wearing tall vases.  The beginning and the end.  I think of that night we walked the meadow.  Animals braying.  A hawk that screamed.  You tensed, dear Petrov.  Every muscle grinding.  Such a pity.  But then you are always at the ready.  What a pressure to carry on the chest.  So thick it can lead to pleurisy.  In battle an illness can bring out the end.  You manage to dodge the shells and cannon fire.  One germ.  Can bring you crashing to your knees.





What is spare can be taught to be plentiful.  I have seen bounty in bunches of wild strawberries caught in the tangle of their own vine.  On my belly in the summer eating those fruits.  Juices dripping down my face and onto my dress bib.  Dirt grinding inside my shoes despite the many button hooks.  Bites from tiniest unseen insects.  It is a time of great abandonment.  Alone in the field with my horse hovering.  His steady breathing.  Tail swishing at the flies.  Would you know of such delights, dear Petrov.  Though I doubt it would occur to you.  Needing all sorts of things to surround your day.  Drink.  A hamper of meats and cheese.  Loaves of roughly textured bread.  Can you not relinquish.  Adapt to what is abundantly here.  I like my bread soft as the berries I stuff in my cheeks.  Fat red pockets with soft textured hides.  It almost makes life bearable.  Use honey, you say, whenever I pour the tea.  I try explaining that honey is a cloying thing.  It jots at the mind as your teeth stick together.  I would once like to see you here, dear Petrov.  Prone in the field.  Wild strawberries stuffed in your face and pockets as if it were the end of the world.


Susan Tepper is a fiction writer, poet, interviewer and essayist.  Her seventh book, a novella, will be published in the fall by Rain Mountain Press, NYC.  Tepper is the recipient of many awards and nominations, including ten for the Pushcart, NPR’s Selected Shorts, 7th place winner in the Zoetrope Novel Contest (2006), Second Place Winner in storySouth Million Writers Award (2014), a Pulitzer Nomination for her novel What May Have Been (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) and more.

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