by Hemant Nayak
Victor P. Bladishenko loved the sound of crickets, their shiny carapaces snapping between his thick fingers. He thrilled at the crack and pop. He smirked as their legs twitched when separated from unfortunate heads.
Victor flicked the still moving parts to Anatoly, his Siamese, who snapped them up. The cat’s crunching sent shivers of delight up Victor’s spine.
“The audacity of crickets is without measure,” he explained for the thousandth time. Anatoly licked his lips. “To think they hope to imitate me. Me!” His fingers shattered another victim. Anatoly caught it in midair.
Victor picked up his violin and struck the notes of his latest composition. The cat arched its back as the room vibrated with the force of the music. The hundreds of portraits on the wall, all of Victor in poses of triumph, trembled, then hurried back to their perfect order.
“The audacity, Anatoly. It knows no bounds.”
The cat nodded knowingly. His master’s enemies did not live long.
Victor looked over the myriad images of himself and paused on a tiny picture buried amongst the giant gilt frames, his love, Natalya of the Thousand Fountains. The fairest creature in the Tsar’s empire was his and his alone. His greatest rival, Roman T. Lavanomov, might seek her, but he would fail miserably.
“I will snap Lavanomov’s spine like an insect’s shell and toss him to the cats.” Anatoly’s head bobbed in tandem following his master’s movements.
Thoughts of his bitter enemy made Victor’s right eye twitch. He put down the violin and dove through the endless parchment littering his work table. Anatoly rose up on his hind legs and pawed at the papers filled with musical notes swirling through the air.
Underneath the final sheet, Victor found what he sought. He held up his prize, a misty crystal in the shape of a tear drop. He concentrated on the crystal and smoke swirled in its depths. An image of his enemy took shape. The sounds of night in an open field infused the room.
Victor watched through the crystal as on the other side of St. Petersburg, Roman T. Lavanomov lay in a field listening to the music of crickets.
The gaunt musician tilted his head as an owl moaned and the crescent shadows of swallows circled overhead. The field reverberated to a symphony of crickets. Roman clutched a pen in his hand, enraptured by the waves of music. He lifted the pen and closed his eyes.
Miles away, Victor Bladishenko slipped the crystal into his pocket. His rival dared to compose a score to try and capture Natalya’s heart. Victor stared at the miniscule painting of Natalya and his hand balled into a fist.
The hair rose on the back of Anatoly’s neck. His master’s enemies did not survive long.
The following day, both composers could be found traveling in opposite directions on the infinite spiral stairs running through the perfect center of the St. Petersburg Library. Books encircled them, rising in stacks toward the sky as far as the eye could see. Victor gripped the wrought iron railing as he descended toward his enemy. The ancient iron bent under the force of his grip leaving behind the mark of four fingers.
“Good day, Victor Bladishenko.” The fine-boned face that regarded him was absurd.
“Dark days for you, Lavanomov. Dark days.” Anatoly hissed behind his ankles.
“Behind darkness hides light, Victor.”
“It hides for good reason, Lavanomov. You might follow its example.”
“Great music cannot lay dormant forever, Victor. When angels sing we must listen.”
“Angels should stay where they belong and leave this world to us.” Victor pushed past his fragile rival and their arms brushed together. Books tumbled from the shelves surrounding them, falling to the depths below. Anatoly hissed again.
“Your cat does not like me, Victor.”
“On that we both agree, Lavanomov.”
Victor turned his back on his enemy and continued his descent. One hundred and forty six thousand stairs he traveled as the sun set and then rose again to cross the sky. The spines of the books surrounding him grew dark. Water dripped endlessly from subterranean caves and bats swirled through the air as he descended into the bowels of the earth.
He neared his destination and the air, breathed out from angry depths far below, grew hot. At the side of the staircase, Victor opened a red door and passed within.
His room was kept ready for him; sheaves of parchment lay stacked upon a massive wooden table. Fire played in the hearth. Sweat poured off Victor’s brow. Everything was in order.
Anatoly took up his usual place on the black ottoman. The reflections of flames danced in the cat’s eyes. Victor sank into the high-backed chair and took up his pen. He hesitated, then reached into his pocket and took out the gray crystal. He laid the pen down and held the gemstone up to the fire.
An image of his enemy formed and Victor ground his teeth at the sight. Roman Lavanomov had climbed the three hundred and twelve thousand stairs to reach the superior studies. His fragile enemy opened a green door and passed within.
Inside the chamber, glass walls revealed swirling clouds. Victor watched in amazement as Lavanomov reached up to one of the leaded windows, towering three times the height of a man, and unfastened the latch.
“Madness,” Victor said. Anatoly opened an eye at his master’s outcry. “No man can survive opening the upper windows. He is a dead fool.”
Victor watched as his rival pulled open the window and a hurricane erupted.
Roman Lavanomov was thrown back. Books flew into the air and crashed together, spiraling ever upward. Wind screamed and beat at the walls. Amidst it all Roman crawled to the center of the room. He pulled himself up to a massive desk and the hair on his head settled back upon his brow. As the air around him seethed, Roman took up his pen. From his pocket he removed a small vial and emptied it upon the desk.
Out of the glass vial emerged the most unlikely of survivors, a cricket. The tiny insect stood erect in the eye of the maelstrom and played its violin. The winds quieted. Books plummeted towards the floor, landing in perfect stacks. The cricket played on and Roman lifted his pen.
Victor let the image fade and slid the crystal back into his pocket. Sweat dripped from his brow onto the papers set before him. He pressed his fingertips into the wooden desk, leaving behind deep impressions. He began to compose.
Notes slid from his pen and covered the papers before him. The light grew dark as the fire died and he wrote on, lighting a single candle to see by. The heat of the furnace continued unabated. Crimson demons no larger than a hand appeared along the walls peering down at him, their black horns curved forward. The demon’s sweat dripped down onto Victor’s pages as he brought forth the music that would crush Roman Lavanomov for all eternity.
Victor stared at the candle before him. His enemy would never know the soft touch of Natalya’s hand. The heat of her lips would forever be denied him. He trembled and wrote on until the candle burned to nothing. Clutching the new composition in his hands, he stalked out in utter darkness to the stairway. Anatoly padded behind.
Three nights later, Victor stood in the balcony of the Bolshoi Theater looking down upon the three thousand members of the Vermillion Orchestra. Every seat in the massive auditorium was full, but he had eyes for only two. Far below, his enemy, Roman Lavanomov, sat in the front row unarmed, without a shield, fearless before the force of musicians arrayed before him. Across the vast space of the theater, alone in her balcony, stood Natalya of the Thousand Fountains, her face lit by endless candles.
Silence covered the Bolshoi as the lights focused on the center of the stage. Ranks of instruments hid the conductor, but his pale hands rose above the fray. The conductor’s thin fingers stretched toward the sky and pointed a baton. A lone French horn peeled out a note so pure that a tear fell from Victor’s right eye and hissed away as steam against the heat of his cheek.
The orchestra stirred and a breeze blew across the theater. Violins hummed and the air filled with the scent of a meadow of poppies. All cares vanished from the audience’s faces. Victor watched in pain as a slow smile spread across Natalya’s face. His chest burned and he clutched the railing.
Cellos and bases joined the movement, and the entire ceiling of the Bolshoi cracked open revealing stars. Husbands who’d forgotten their wives and wives who’d forgotten themselves woke and remembered who they wished to be. Natalya raised her hands to the sky and Victor felt himself falling.
The music stopped. The conductors pale hands reappeared and the baton swung across the stage. The plaintive cry of an oboe called and the crickets came. Victor raised two fists before him to no avail as heavenly notes suffused the air. Millions of crickets appeared from nowhere playing violins made of dreams. Memories of what might have been drowned half the audience. The possibilities of life hung before them all.
Then it ended.
Victor looked below at the face of his enemy and watched as Roman T. Lavanomov exulted. Roman looked up and admired Natalya’s perfect face. Natalya smiled down upon the fine-boned composer. Victor watched it all and seethed.
Anatoly purred at his side and Victor calmed. There would always be challengers to be destroyed, he knew. Victor looked at the hands of the conductor and signaled for his own composition to begin.
Drums rolled from the depths of time pounding away the audience’s feelings of personal nostalgia. Deeper memories surfaced of ages gone by and places long forgotten. The music lifted them back to the stone floors of ancient caves where they came from. They remembered the dances before raging bonfires at the start of spring and their skin warmed against the flames. Their feet moved in rhythm and their neglected desires awoke.
The violins sang again, but now they pulsated and the audience swayed to their commands. The base sounded and women held their hearts, feeling the pressure – the desire for escape from this cold world to a real world of passion and fire.
Victor looked to Natalya and found her balcony abandoned. He smiled and waited.
The horns blared and men kissed the unresisting women at their sides, holding them in embraces, whoever they might be. The violins cried together and the beat of the drums cracked apart the stage. A mighty tree sprang forth and grew skyward before their eyes, soaring through the ceiling. Vines sprouted around its trunk and blanketed its surface with purple flowers and dark orange fruit.
Soft fingers slipped inside Victor’s giant hands. He didn’t need to look to know Natalya stood at his side.
The cymbals clashed and the sky filled with a storm of locusts. The enormous insects formed an angry tornado and descended upon the undefended form of Roman T. Lavanomov.
Victor watched as the fragile composer who dared challenge him was covered in the mighty insects and began to disappear. Victor squeezed the fine fingers interlaced with his own and watched his enemy’s demise.
Roman T. Lavanomov, almost covered by a storm of locusts, lifted his face to the woman he’d longed for above all things.
“Why Natalya? Why?”
Natalya of the Thousand Fountains, whom all men desired, looked down upon him sadly.
“Light is forever drawn to the darkness. The moth cannot resist the flame.”
Victor’s enemy vanished beneath the swarm. Victor nodded in satisfaction. He reached out and stroked Anatoly’s head.
“The audacity of crickets knows no bounds, Anatoly. It knows no bounds.”
Anatoly crunched a cricket and swallowed. He curled on the balcony and closed his eyes.
Category: Fiction, Short Story