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Home: The Toast

The woman did nothing more to catch Yakov’s attention than to stand in the stale morning air, arms folded across her chest. In the crowd of commuters bustling through City Square, she should’ve been invisible, but the sight of her made him stop. He did not think her beautiful. He stared as if he were in one of the city’s churches and she was part of a mural on its wall. He felt as if he’d known her in a dream, or in a faraway place where he’d forgotten who he was, though he had never left the city. She seemed out of context against the clay brick of City Hall.

Yakov, like the others in the square, was on his way to work. His final destination would be the flower shop, an outdated place hanging on by its shallow roots. They sold only dried flowers, as there was very little money with which to purchase fresh ones. No one complained. His was the only flower shop the City Center had ever known. The few customers he had were mostly government employees who purchased daily assortments to send to the newly bereaved families of war martyrs, though occasionally neighbors and family friends sent flowers to express their hushed condolences. Yakov was late to open, but he couldn’t go on without addressing her.

“Where are you from?” he said.

Her nostrils flared as she looked at him. “That’s not your business.”

He studied her. Black hair straight and severe to her waist, tucked behind her mousy ears, which seemed too small for her face. A pointed chin, dark eyes with dark lashes and a beauty mark dotting her nose like a piercing. She didn’t trim her eyebrows. Her body was hidden beneath a thick black sweater and black pants, but her shoes were a white shock. 

“Is that all?” she said.

“Do I know you from somewhere?” he asked.

“Absolutely not. I would remember someone as scrawny and rude as you.”

The woman was right. Yakov was scrawny, perhaps also a little rude; at least he’d certainly been called that before, not only by women. Still it irked him when she said it, as if she had made the judgment over a lifetime.

“You don’t have to be mean. I thought I recognized you is all.”

“Well, you don’t.” She searched the crowd. He figured she was looking for a way out, so he gave her one. He left.

***

At work, sorting the dry flowers into bins, into vases, atop red and gold papers, Yakov couldn’t forget. He knew her. He had known her name once, he was sure; he had known her favorite flower. He studied each flower in the shop. Not the rose, the tulip, the orchid. Certainly not the mum – no one loved mums. The chamomile. He held a white bloom in his palm and knew from its touch that her favorite flower was the chamomile. She must’ve been a customer, he thought, but as he imagined her at the counter he felt the wrongness of her there among the flowers. Surely he would recall her stark colorlessness against the flowers’ muted vibrancy. Surely he would know her by a name.

He stuck the chamomile in his pocket and searched through the database tablet. The doorbell dinged. Yakov stopped searching and looked up, forcing his smile. An older man strode into the shop, his suit pressed. In the City Center, everyone wore suits, and so it was not the man’s suit that alerted Yakov to the fact that his billfold would be packed with money but the way he was able to walk without hobbling.

“How may I help you?” Yakov asked, pushing the database to the side of the counter.

The man didn’t smile, but that was nothing new; flowers were for the dead. He ordered a bouquet of twelve yellow roses to be delivered to a neighbor, for the loss of a child.

“A martyr?” Yakov asked. He was required to stamp the card with a special seal for war martyrs.

“No,” said the man. “A small boy. No more than four.”

“A shame,” Yakov said. “How did he die?”

“I’m not sure. Until three months ago, he came to my house every afternoon. My wife gave him tea cakes. The poor boy didn’t get them at home. But now he does not come, and we watched the black car come and leave, and we don’t see him in the yard any more. We greatly enjoyed his company, and we would like to let his family know that he is missed.”

“I see,” Yakov said, and he saw more than the man knew. He saw a sick boy and a poor family, a rich man across the street who would give a boy tea cakes but would not give a family food to keep them well. He saw these things because his had been that poor family. They had lived in neighborhoods where the rich’s extravagant houses stood tall and the poor’s crumbled into dirt. Luckily, he had been the only child and had not grown ill.

Yakov typed the man’s information into the database. He would deliver the order after four o’clock, when he closed the shop and made his rounds. Once the man left, Yakov opened the database again and read through every name. None seemed familiar.

After leaving the flowers on the doorstep of the decrepit house at the address the older man had given him, Yakov looked for the man’s address. Sure enough, his house was the nicest on the block, the porch newly stained, the front yard manicured.

On the way home, Yakov walked again through City Square. He searched for the woman but didn’t see her.

That night he dreamt of her holding him like a child. He was fully grown and far too heavy for her to lift, so she sat with him across her lap. He didn’t want to leave her arms.

***

The woman was in the same spot the next morning. The sight of her made Yakov’s stomach jump. He’d been frightened he would never see her again. He ran to her. She didn’t look surprised to see him.

“Here,” he said. He handed her the dried chamomile. She rolled it over in her palm. “Your favorite flower.”

“Not anymore,” she said, closing her fingers over it. “I hate white.” The petals crunched in her grip. The flower released its musty scent. Yakov saw tears in her eyes. “Damn it,” she said. “They told me you wouldn’t remember.”

“Remember what?” he asked. “I don’t remember. How do I know you?”

“You saw me in the street, in another place, that was all. Just saw me in the street with a chamomile in my hair. You don’t know me. We’re strangers.”

“Are we?” He watched as she let the broken flower petals fall from her hands. They fluttered to the concrete and collected at their feet like dead moths. “I dreamt of you last night.” He lowered his voice. “You were holding me like a child.”

She laughed. “Strange boy,” she said. But then she scowled. “No,” she said. “We’re strangers. Let’s leave it at that.”

Then, suddenly, she took off through the throng of people. He ran after her, pushing his way through the workers in their suits, past the hard plastic statues of the great war martyrs, altered already by the beat of rain, their surfaces faded where before they had been colors too beautiful to believe. Soon the statues would be replaced. The nostalgic feeling he had for the woman would never be replaced. Yakov was young, had only recently buried his parents and taken over the shop, but he knew that the feeling would never disappear, not as long as he failed to place her face.

Still he glimpsed the black flash of her darting far ahead of him. She was disappearing, and he doubted she would come to wait again at the City Hall for whatever it was she waited for. He passed another plastic martyr. Niko Markovic, the plaque below him read, Martyr.

“Niko Markovic!” Yakov cried at the top of his lungs. “A martyr, back from the dead! Look, look – there he is!”

He pointed ahead, to where the woman had disappeared. The crowd parted, hungry for a miracle. He was able once more to see her. She had turned to look, and her eyes caught his. Even far away he recognized the desperate expression.

The woman had his eyes.

And then he saw, beside her, a gilded clay statue, the same shape, the same hair, same eyes as hers, though the clothes were different, a gown the color of eggshell to the statue’s feet, the paint shimmery in the half-light through the clouds. It looked as if she were standing beside her twin. She glanced over at the statue, and then she was gone once more into the crowd which merged back together, their angry murmurs like thunder. They jostled Yakov with their shoulders.

With a great effort, he shoved his way to the statue. It stood in a row of Royal Sculptures that lined the edge of the square’s garden. Lena Pajari, the plaque below it read. Grand Duchess.

***

I should explain, of course, why Yakov did not recognize the woman as a Grand Duchess that first time he laid eyes on her. In the city there are as many Grand Duchesses as there are varieties of dried flowers in the shop, for the royal family is large; the Tzar and Tzarina have at least ten daughters, each given the title of Grand Duchess, and twelve sons—or Tzarevichs–each of their wives also titled Grand Duchess. They say the children are rescues, orphans saved from poverty. To keep track of them all requires a sharper mind than Yakov’s, which could not even place a woman whose statue he passed every morning.

The night after he found her name in clay, Yakov thought himself appeased. He had, after all, likely recognized her from her gilded likeness. But his sleep was fevered. He flopped about his bed like a fish, and in the morning his eyes stung. When he looked in the mirror, he saw her frightened eyes looking back at him. He touched his black hair and knew it was the same as hers. Perhaps, he thought, she was a cousin, and her parents were taken, likely by the war.

He wanted to find her again.

***

Of course she was not where she had been. There Yakov found only a haggard young woman bent over a steaming mug of coffee. Yakov knew where she would live, or he could know, with a little research. First, however, he had three orders to fill at the shop.

He rushed through the arrangements, but just as he was about to flip the sign around, a woman barged in, holding a bouquet of yellow roses. She thrust them onto the counter.

“These are not mine,” she said.

Yakov read the name on the tag. “You are not Madeline Cross?”

“I am she, but this tag here says condolences for the death of a son. I have no son.”

Yakov scrolled through the database. Hers had been the order from the rich old man. “I’m terribly sorry. Your neighbor said he used to give the boy tea cakes.”

“There have been no boys in our house for years. I certainly would have noticed if I had a son who died.”

“I am sorry, ma’am.” The gentleman must have been mad, thought Yakov. “You may keep the flowers if you’d like. They have been paid for.”

“I don’t want them. I don’t know this man. My husband thinks I’m having an affair and that the man has sent these to insult him. Please, take these wretched things.”

Yakov took the flowers and apologized again. The woman left the shop in a huff. Yakov closed up, fazed, and completed the day’s deliveries. When he finished, he ran to the library.

In the dusty stacks he spread the archives across a table and searched them for her name. Lena Pajari, the royal name. There were two Lenas, one light-haired and fair, the other sullen in her photo, which he was surprised to read was a birthday picture. Ten years ago, when Yakov had been only twelve. The article said the Grand Duchess Lena lived in an offshoot of the royal palace itself, thirty miles from the City Center.

Yakov purchased a sausage from a stand and ate dinner while he waited for a bus that would take him to another bus that would run him by the palace gates. Yakov had only seen the palace on television, and then only briefly, for he did not own a TV and only saw what he was able to absorb in passing. Without knowing what he would do when he arrived, he boarded the bus and began what he believed to be the last leg of a journey. The bus ride was slow and rocky through the city, as the streets had long been neglected, maintenance funds directed instead, as it always is in war times, to the military. No one knew much about the war, but it affected the city in ways Yakov forgot throughout the day. Without the war, he and the others in the square each morning would be as haggard as the woman who this morning had stood where Yakov first saw Lena. After all, the war provided most of them their jobs: crafting weapons, prepping planes and ships and tanks for battle, selling flowers to soothe the veteran families of the few martyrs whose bodies could be identified. If the soldiers came back, they would take the jobs from those who had not gone to war. And they would have a right to.

Why, he wondered, had Lena been there in the first place, against that building, as if waiting for someone, in civilian dress?

Before long the bus skidded into the next station, this one built of brown rock and granite. The second bus was clean and colorless and did not rattle as it pulled away. The roads were clearer here, and no beggars stood at their corners with cardboard signs. The other passengers on the bus held maps before their faces or peered out the windows with fascination. Their dress was strange, colorful, the letters on their shirts foreign. They spoke too loudly for locals. Yakov couldn’t keep his eyes off them. In the City Square, there were few tourists. Too crowded, ugly, dangerous there. They read the reports of disappearing children, strange because no families ever reported them, always neighbors, much like the older man in the shop. Yakov thought it must be something in the water that made the old so senile. He had never really been around the old, his parents gone long before they wrinkled from head to toe.

Even now on the bus, the tourists eyed him over their maps. Yakov watched out the window as even the trees lightened, larches and firs replaced with majestic silver birches.

The palace snuck into view, its great alabaster wall stretching taller than trees; the way the sunlight hit the wall, it gleamed like slick sidewalks after rain. Its purpose was to keep prying eyes from seeing into the courtyard, but Yakov could view three shuttered windows near the domed roof, its minaret stabbing the sky, and as the bus rolled down the street next to the palace’s hidden line of connected buildings, Yakov wished he could see more of it. Like the tourists, he became entranced, as if the blankness were absorbing all of him, his thoughts and, most importantly, his reason for coming here. All of a sudden he longed to be part of the wall, part of its blankness. For a moment he wanted to forget the woman. What had her name been? He wanted to forget and turn around and ride the next bus home, sleep in snowy sheets and arrange white flowers.

On the street, a little boy screamed. Yakov looked away from the palace. A mother led the boy by the hand. He screamed that he did not want to go: toys, he cried, he wanted his toys. Yakov shook his head. In City Center children cried for other reasons. Yakov remembered his reason for coming. He was possibly Lena’s only family, and she would surely take him in as if they had never been apart.

The bus stopped. Yakov was careful not to gaze at the blank as he exited, but seeing as the palace stretched for miles in every direction, always he saw the wall from the corner of his eye.

After crossing the street, he faced a slatted ivory gate, strangely unguarded. To the right of the gate stood a call screen with a big, green button. Yakov pressed it. A woman’s face appeared on the screen.

“Might I help you?” she asked.

“I’m here to see Lena,” he said.

The woman smirked. “The Grand Duchess does not take visitors off the street.”

“I’m family,” he said. “The last family she has left. Surely she would like to know I exist.”

The woman frowned and leaned close to the screen. “Foolish boy. Go home. It was stupid of you—”

“Who’s at the gate?” a man said.

“This young man has come to visit Lena. Claims he is her biggest fan. I’ve told him she does not accept visitors.”

“Sir!” cried Yakov. “I am Lena’s family!”

The man reached into the frame and jerked the camera so that he and not the woman was visible. He wore all white.

“Family?” he said. “I see. You are welcome, young man.”

The gate creaked inward. Yakov walked through. He made his way down stones smooth as porcelain. To either side of him bloomed vast gardens of white roses, and, surprisingly, blue forget-me-nots. Another kind of white flower grew out away from the walkway and covered the garden floor like a carpet. It was small, the petals shaped like little bones. Yakov felt the palace’s presence looming before him, but he kept his eyes to his feet. He understood enough about envy to know it was a misunderstood magic.

Once at the palace door, he knocked three times on the wood, cold under his hands. He looked up into the archway which shaded him; images of flowers had been carved into the palace stone. He dared to lean back and peer at what he could still see of the palace exterior. All the stone was carved in abstract floral reliefs. Yakov shivered. How much time it must have taken, how much work for such trivial gain. Finally the man in white greeted him. “Come in,” he said. “We will make you comfortable.”

Yakov went without a word, removed his shoes, and took the seat offered to him by a flick of the man’s hand. The room was ivory from top to bottom, and the chairs were of silver birch wood and cloud silk. Yakov wondered how anything stayed clean in a house like this. In the house where he had lived with his parents as a child, no surface was left unspoiled by day’s end. There had to be children here, for the Tzarevichs and Grand Duchesses would surely have their heirs.

The man sat in a chair opposite Yakov. A woman entered with a tray of tea. Yakov took what was offered him, a white tea and two cakes. As he ate, the crumbs collected in his lap.

“So you would like to see the Grand Duchess Lena? You say you are family?”

“Yes,” Yakov said. “I’ve told you this already.”

“How do you know you’re family?”

Yakov looked down into his tea. “I guess I don’t, not really.” He looked back up at the man. “I saw her, and I felt like I knew her from somewhere. We look so much alike, and I hear that the Grand Duchesses and the Tzarevichs, that they’re orphans, usually, adopted by the Tzarina.” He shrugged. “I figured Lena must not have known about me.” But he remembered something that she had said to him. They told me you wouldn’t remember. It didn’t add up. He swallowed his spit. She must have known, then, they must all know, and for some reason she didn’t want him to know.

He stood and set the tea on the table beside him. His head felt suddenly foggy. He sat again.

“Grand Duchess Lena has been an excellent daughter to the Tzar and Tzarina. They found her when she was very young. She doesn’t know anything of another family, and I’m not quite sure she’d want to.”

“She remembered me,” he slurred.

“She did no such thing,” said the man. Yakov heard nothing more. The white room went black, and the last thing he felt was his body sliding onto the floor.

***

Yakov woke in a strange bed with a blue canopy.

“Are you awake?” Lena said. She hovered above him, a blue collar around her neck. “I asked to see you. You’re lucky. That woman at the gate is one of my handmaidens, a friend.”

“Lena,” he said. “You know who I am. I remember, you knew me.”

Lena sat on the bed; her weight, too, was familiar to him there. “Your name is Yakov.”

“You’re her brother,” said a woman Yakov could not see. “And you aren’t supposed to remember her.”

Yakov’s vision was still cloudy. It took a moment for him to recognize the Tzarina. She looked worn, not like on television where she was so painted over you couldn’t tell her skin was wrinkled.

“Mother, let me tell him. At least we could give him that.”

The Tzarina disappeared. From the corner of the room, Yakov heard a chair creak.

“You don’t remember,” she said, “because they made you forget. We made you.”

“I don’t understand,” Yakov said.

“Of course you don’t. You were young, but not young enough. Listen, I’m going to tell you everything. It won’t matter. Years ago, I was ten at the time, and you were eight, the recruiters came to our house. I had seen them come before, at my friend Salomeh’s. See, I had been in Salomeh’s bathroom when they arrived, and I heard them ask for her little brother, the same age you were then, to volunteer for the war. Salomeh’s parents told them to go away, that their son was too young to die. The recruiters called them cowards and left, and when I came out of the bathroom Salomeh’s mother was crying. I went home. That night I saw a black car come to their house. The recruiters carried the child away. When I asked Salomeh what happened to her brother, she said she didn’t have a brother. Her parents seemed not to remember him either. I knew they were not being tough, for his room, too, had been cleared, replaced with a study full of furniture they had never owned.

“So when that black car came to our house, and our parents told them no, of course you would not volunteer, I followed the men outside. ‘Don’t take my brother,’ I said. Of course they claimed to have no idea what I was talking about, so that night I stayed up and waited on the porch for them. When they arrived, I asked them again. ‘Don’t take my brother.’ They pulled a white flower from their pocket, asked me if I wanted a pretty flower for my hair. I did want it, but I said no. ‘Take me,’ I told them. ‘Take me instead.’

“They whispered to each other then turned back to me. ‘We will take you instead, okay, but you have to do us a favor. Take these flowers and sneak into the bedrooms of each person in your house and slip one of these under their pillows.’

“‘What for?’ I asked. ‘So they won’t remember,’ they said. So I did. I put one under mama’s, under papa’s, under your pillow. We packed my things into the car, and the men took me away.

“I feared what they might have in mind for me, but they brought me here, to the palace. They called in the Tzarina, said they had found her a nice, headstrong girl, like she’d asked. A true martyr. The Tzarina, she came to me, she stroked my hair. She called me daughter.”

“Why couldn’t she have found her own daughter?” Yakov believed the story. Anger rose in a red blush up his neck. He had been stolen from by people who possessed so much. He didn’t know what it was, to have a sister, but he knew it had been taken from him. He would never forgive.

“I’m right here,” said the Tzarina, a bodiless voice from the corner of the room. “I couldn’t have children of my own, of course I couldn’t. We royalty live in a world that cannot give in to natural temptations. It is not what the war wants of us. We aren’t monsters, Yakov. We gave your sister a life beyond what she ever could have had. We do not steal children except from necessity. The war needs martyrs, soldiers to die for our freedoms. We offer young men, all men, the chance at going willingly. You yourself could have given your body to the war at any time, and yet you chose instead to run a flower shop. As long as the war goes on, we here in the palace are needed. But one day the war will end, and the people, they will take this palace down, and we will let them. It will be our time. Who will speak for us? Who will bury us if we have no children? Who will stoke our memories?”

Lena ran her hand through Yakov’s hair. “Brother,” she said. “I’ve been happy here. I’ve had everything I could ever want.”

She wasn’t telling all of the truth. There was a look of reticence to her face that he often saw when he refused to see in himself the marks of a hard life lived, when he tried not to see the ash of his skin.

“I won’t forget you again,” he whispered. He grabbed her hand and squeezed tight.

“But you will.” The Tzarina’s face came again into view, her smile sad. “Your sister has given you a present beneath your pillow. Farewell, Mr. Yakov. It is a shame you lived such a paltry life rather than give yourself for the cause of freedom.”

He heard footsteps, but Lena stayed.

“I swear I won’t forget,” he said.

Lena smiled, her smile the same sad Tzarina’s smile; though they were not blood, they looked like mother and daughter, the way friends pick up on one another’s mannerisms and begin to resemble siblings. One day, Yakov thought, she might become the Tzarina.

“You will forget,” Lena said. “The flowers, they only make you forget that which you do not want to remember. You’ll see. You’ll forget me.”

“I don’t want to forget,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

She held his hand until there was nothing more he could do to keep his eyes from closing.

“I won’t,” he said, and he slept.

***

When Yakov woke, his house was quiet. He peered at the wall clock and knew the reason; it was too early to be awake. He must have had a bad dream, he thought, fingering the white flower that had slipped from beneath his pillow.

He rose from bed and walked through the common room of his apartment. The place was a mess; his journal lay on the floor. It must have fallen from his bag, as some of the pages had ripped away. He didn’t remember doing it. He put the kettle on and drained a glass of tea. He sat in his chair by the window until he heard the bustle begin outside.

In the City Square, he stopped to stare at a young woman leaning against the side of City Hall. The woman wore a ragged raincoat, and her yellow hair had been pulled back so her face showed clearly in the rain. Hers was a kind face, though her nose was pointed as a witch’s. In her right hand she held what looked from far away like a photograph, and in her left a steaming mug.

Upon approaching the woman, Yakov could better see the photo; it was of a woman. He thought nothing much of it—always there were people in the square holding photographs of people they had lost—but the woman reached out and grabbed hold of his arm. Coffee sloshed onto the ground, a strong, muddy smell lifting to Yakov’s nose.

“Have you seen this woman?” the lady asked. She thrust the photo into Yakov’s face. “She was supposed to meet me here a week ago, but I was delayed, and now I can’t find her. Do you know her? Please, sir.”

Yakov looked down at the photo. The woman was beautiful, her black hair straight and severe to her waist, tucked behind mousy ears. She had a beauty mark on her nose, dark eyes and lashes, untrimmed eyebrows. Her darkness was terrifying, because it was somewhat familiar. Yakov too had such dark features. But he did not recognize her.

“No, sorry,” he said.

As he walked away, he heard the woman muttering. Supposed to run away, she was saying. Get the hell out of here, she was saying. Loved her, she was saying.

Yakov felt nothing for the woman. Every day, the people in this city lost greater things than love. 

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Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in venues such as Hobart, PRISM International, Clarkesworld, and Everyman's Library's Monster Verse anthology.

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