“Is your kit ready? We ride out in the morning!”
Joshua no longer fought the fever that had wracked him all week. His sheets were damp but he didn’t have the strength to change them. He knew his fever had risen but exhausted the aspirin days ago. I’m sick; I must be babbling. I’m not sure of the sound of my own voice. I don’t think it was me.
He heard horses whinny and slowly turned his head towards the dim light on the nightstand next to his bed. There was a faded photo leaning against its base. He had found it stuck between two Russian novels in a carton of old books in a corner of the attic. It was part of his “once a month, spend an hour cleaning out the attic” campaign.
He thought it was a picture of his paternal grandfather, mounted on a horse in front of a birch grove. The ground in front was randomly covered with low bushes and stunted vegetation and part of a dirt road could be seen in the upper righthand corner. Initially he thought it could have been a picture of his father, but when he held it up to a strong light, he found an erased date on the back, which, if it was the date the picture was taken was at least a dozen years before his father was born. The date was smudged; maybe it is my father.
Joshua broke out in a fresh sweat and fell back on his pillow. He tried to stay awake but his mind drifted back to the picture.
He remembered how he had taken it into the bathroom and held it up next to his reflection. There were similarities in the cheek bones and ears as well as the overall bone structure of the face. He didn’t give it much thought and shelved the novels in a mostly empty bookcase in the living room. The photo he put on top, thinking that he’d get a small frame for it.
He recalled as a little boy that the shelves were full and there were always a few books on top. His father liked to read, always seemed to have a book in his hand on weekends. Then one day, his father didn’t come home. He heard his mother whispering on the phone with her sister. The following days were like a nightmare, his mother alternately crying and cursing. Finally, grabbing him by the shoulders and yelling, “Your father’s run off with one of his floozies. I curse the day we got married – don’t you be like him when you grow up.”
One day when he came home from school, the bookcases were empty. He never asked what happened and his mother never said anything about his father besides announcing a year later that the divorce was final. His mother snarled, “Never would be too soon to have anything to do with your father’s family.”
The picture and books brought back memories. Prior to the separation his father’s older sister was a frequent visitor. She would come in the front door, patiently explaining to his mother that she was company, “And company always use the front door!”
If she was wearing a coat, she would hang it on the doorknob of the hall closet, telling his mother, “It’s alright there; we’re family!” Then she would lie down on the couch. “Joshie, be a good boy. Let the hot water run, bring me a glass, and maybe a slice of lemon.”
She told him how they drank tea from glasses in special silver glass-holders, “Chaska [чашка]. My grandparents carried them across Mother Russia always one step ahead of the next pogrom. As a child we spoke Russian at home. But in America…”
Joshua struggled to an elbow, recalling that his aunt had tried to teach him a word or two of Russian. She had tapped a broken beat on the coffee table. “Shto eto?” And then she did it again. “Shto eto? What’s this, Joshie? Don’t you go to the movies to see Gene Autry and Tom Mix?” And again, she beat a broken pattern before announcing in triumph, “Eto loshad [это лошадь] – This is a horse!”
He turned towards the picture – it was his father on the horse! Loshad. The horse was a loshad. When he was ten, he had looked up the word in a Russian dictionary in the library. He had copied it out to show his aunt in case she came in the front door. But neither she nor his father ever came. Eventually he lost the paper.
Joshua fell back on the bed, exhausted.
His fever rose in the night and the next thing he knew he was a little boy, mounted on the horse behind his father, his father’s Russian cavalry coat wrapped around them both. His father set the horse in a fast gallop across the plain, shouting over his shoulder, “Eto loshad!”
Ken was a Professor of Mathematics, a ceramicist, a welder, and an IBMer until downsized in 2000. He lives with his wife and beagle in Shorewood, Wisconsin and writes late at night in his man-cave. He enjoys chamber music and mysteries, is a homebrewer, and runs whitewater rivers. Please visit http://www.kmkbooks.com