‘What does he do?’ I once asked Alexander Antonovich (affecting not to know the bird’s ghastly nocturnal purpose) while holding my father’s hand, as our trio studied Napoleon in the farmyard.‘What he likes,’ said Antonovich. ‘He’s the boss here: it’s his farm.’
When I asked him what he meant by ancient, he said, ‘As old as the plains. As old as Russia. He’ll be here when I’m ashes… when all of us are ashes.’
The bird stood its ground before us as if it understood every word the old man had said… as if it were waiting to see if we had anything to voice by way of contradiction, which we did not.
When the time came for us to leave, with or without Antonovich, depending on whether he was staying at the farm for the night, I’d pull ahead, anxious to get into our car.
Dad would fiddle with his keys, mutter and try to get Beatrisa to start. I, meanwhile, would be standing on the back seat, looking out for Napoleon. Eventually Beatrisa would snort to life and settle to the shudder that would last all our journey home.
Near the top of the track that led from the farm I’d finally find the courage to look back. Without fail, Napoleon would be thundering after us. Even after the thrum of the wooden bridge under our wheels, he’d still be on our tail, squawking and jumping, into the road. I’d watch him, watching us, till a grass bank with trees intervened. From a hillock I’d stare back, and see his speck: defiant.
My mother died first – a tumour that ate through her – fifteen years on from where I’ve begun. My father held his life together for a while, but, in time, fell apart. Antonovich’s trips to the farm – Dad’s sole source of meaningful money, and companionship – grew fewer.
Dad scratched a little cash driving the likes of Irina Budayeva, a fat, malingering woman who wouldn’t walk anywhere, and Father Leonid, who, as a priest, my father was embarrassed to charge: a situation which suited Father Leonid perfectly.
An added problem was that Beatrisa, Dad’s by now heavily patched-up car, started breaking down a lot. One time a wheel flew off so that he and Antonovich careered down a ravine. Antonovich, virtually blind by this stage, stayed in his seat as my father went for help. A farmer put a chain around Beatrisa’s fender and dragged her out with his tractor, like a cow from a river.
By that time I was at university and had a small place of my own. One night, just over a year after my mother’s passing, Dad phoned and said Antonovich was dead. The old man had been found by the caretaker of his block, cold as stone in his his bed, dressed in his coat and hat. After some confused words – my father had been drinking, I could tell – he told me he loved me and put down the phone. Next day he drove out to the farm and gassed himself in Beatrisa. In one hand he held the wooden cross that used to hang over my parents’ bed; in the other a wedding photo showing the two of them smiling.
When I tried to find the farm, the light was failing. I felt sure I must have become lost. I was about to give up when the thrum – my tyres on the slats of the wooden bridge – told me I was there, and had found my way back. I nosed down the track. Tall weeds and grass brushed against the sides of my car. Moths fluttered in the headlamps. As I rolled deeper thorns dragged against the wings, branches raked at the roof. Finally the pitch levelled and splayed into the clearing I remembered. I saw the dark huddle of the house and barns. My lights fell on Beatrisa where the police had left her, tyres flat, in the yard
The air was cooler than in the city, but it was heavy… still… as if all life and sweetness had been sucked from it. Crickets chorused in the fields: their pulse rising, or so it seemed, as the darkness deepened. A sound – on the edge of the woods, something muffled – disturbed my thoughts. An animal, I presumed: a boar… rabbits, perhaps.
I looked at Beatrisa, and thought of my father in her as she filled with fumes. I wondered if he might have had some last-minute change of heart. Her doors were always sticking. I remembered how if ever I or my mother or Antonovich wanted to get out of her, my father had to do so first. He’d yank open the door in question with a shrug of his shoulders, as if he could not understand what our problem was. I thought of my mother and her tumour: how if it had chosen anywhere else but her brain to take root the doctors could probably have burned it out. Finally, I thought of Antonovich in his chair in the great room of the farmhouse, staring at the mouth of the fireplace, his talk of ashes, the time when all of us would be that.
I reached into my pocket, drew out the box, slid open the drawer and struck the first match.
In that dark emptiness, the rasp of the strike, the eruption of the head, were like cannon and bonfire, or so it seemed. I tilted the match downward between finger and thumb, coaxing the flame to caterpillar up the slender stick. When my fingers felt its singeing heat I let the match fall.
Spits and crackles began at my feet. The brittle weeds and parched grass that had overtaken the farmyard burst open at their stems: tiny, teardrop flames. To begin with, the small beads of fire seemed harmless. But soon I had to step back.
The flames went for Beatrisa first: pulling at her doors, crawling onto her roof, sliding down her bonnet and wings. I left her behind me, ablaze.
I let the second match fall at the foot of the front-door of the farmhouse. Fire quickly embraced its rotten wood. I stood back and watched as flames garlanded the old house with reds and yellows that waved like beds of poppies and corn. The place seemed to sigh and moan: more alive now at its moment of immolation than it had been in perhaps a hundred years. I thought how much better it would have been had Antonovich perished here, smiling and setting his coat aflame with a match from my hand, sitting in his chair in his vast, grey chamber. I heard his bronchial whisper: ‘But of course, professor.’
The house surrendered – no… it rejoiced – as the inferno consumed it. The crickets in the fields beat their wings with thunderous intensity. It was as if – rank upon rank – they were relishing the conflagration: spectating… salivating; the leaping, dancing flames gleaming in their black, bulbous eyes, like those tricoteuse women threshing their needles in the blood-soaked shadows of the French guillotine. For a moment the house seemed to stagger as if shuddering in the ecstasy of the glorious, shimmering destruction wrought by my tiny, awesome torches… my shock troops… my answers.
As I was leaving, over the bridge, something told me to look back. The farm glowed like a village razed. But it was another sight that seized me. For in the dark womb of my car a red eye glared, and a pair of wings raised themselves… triumphant… in the manner of an aquila carried by the legions of ancient Rome.
I followed the road to that incline beyond the trees where, as a boy, I had looked back on the farm from Beatrisa. I parked and, not unlike my father might have, held the door for Napoleon to get out. With one leviathan step he lifted himself onto the bonnet. With another he planted his huge claw foot on the car’s roof. Massive, ancient, terrifying, he shook from his frame a firestorm of gold and ruby feathers, and drew open his cavernous beak. Then, as the farm burned below us, he crowed and crowed into the night’s cold darkness with such a scathing, steepling, flaying fury that it demanded the ears of everyone and everything. Not just in Moscow, but in Saint Petersburg, in Arkhangelsk, in Vladivostok, in Rostov, in Samara, in all of Russia. The alert and the asleep, the young and the old, the living and the dead: he would have their homage, their adoration, their souls.
Irina Budayeva was the first.
She was, it appears, gorging cake when our fire insinuated itself under her door. It ate its way along her crumbed carpet, cornered her in her kitchen – that same place, on the ninth floor, where week after week she had had my father lumber her bags without ever giving him even the smallest of tips. Her corpse, when recovered, resembled a charred pig.
Next came our burnings of those houses the fat cats had built on Antonovich’s estate. Twelve in one night: how beautifully they burned. No hope of salvation. The bonfires soared and shone in Napoleon’s approving gaze.
The destruction of a fleet of limousines was something in which I took particular pleasure. Their burnt-out shells were strikingly apocalyptic, like a convoy of incinerated battle tanks.
Ordeal by fire seemed the only way to settle my account with Father Leonid. I set his bell tower alight with a votive candle as he climbed its stone steps: the fire hurrying after him along a rope rail and trapping him neatly by means of the tower’s wooden beams. A priest, you might have thought, would have been ready to meet his Maker. But not greedy Leonid. He leapt from his belfry in a bid to save himself… and breathed his skull-smashed last on the pavement below, as if listening at a crack.
I have abandoned my studies at the university: there is simply too much to be done. I travel the city setting new fires nightly, though to Napoleon my efforts are never enough. I hasten from one appointment to the next: his red eye upon me, his peals from my balcony exhorting me to more. I have come to realise there is something sacred between us, and have long banished my childhood fears.
His flame, of course, is eternal. Mine flickers in the moment, I know. Yet together – until I am ashes – we shall bring our light to the dark.
I am the torch-bearer, the flame-thrower, the fire-starter, taken under His golden wing.
Watch for my work.
This is my song.