The Breaking of Ashes

BY GENE CASE

I.

When they arrived, ashes fell.
            They were alone. It was fitting. They were grey and faint, and the ashes fell on them. They did not make a sound.

Annikova Matryona Rostislavova.
            Xe passed them by. It was dark out; the ashes were not like snow. They did not silence the city, and they were not gentle on mouths. And they did not glow.
            Xe wore a red cloak, not red of blood or wine or fruits. It was red of skin, of cold on pale cheeks and lips on blue veins. Eyes smarted looking at it, or glinted with admiration.
            Xe never noticed. It was a shame.
            There was a slim ghost of a moon in the sky, and xe was alone. That was fitting, too.
            They stood in the ashes and looked at xim.
            “Seryy,” they said.
            “I know.”
            Countess Annikova Matryona Rostislavova.
            “I’m Motya,” xe said.
            “Motya.” The ashes fell into their mouth.
            “Yes.”

            Seryy kept looking. The red cloak, the mouth.
            They were grey. Eyes, face. Ashes in their hair. Motya looked too.
            “Come home with me,” xe said.
            Seryy had never been home before; but it was cold out. They took Motya’s hand.
            They were the end of the world, and the beginning.

II.

Motya wore dresses.
            Red. Crimson. Scarlet. Flames and roses and birds and red.
            Xe was alone with Seryy. They were both small in the house, Seryy most of all; but it was cozy, and Motya was tall, so it was comfortable.
            Motya showed them xyr dresses. Xe wore only dresses, and cloaks.
            “Do you like like them?” xe asked.
            “Yes,” said Seryy.
            Motya smiled and hired a seamstress.
            There were dresses and jackets--talk of them. Colours, too. “Seryy,” said Seryy.
            That made Motya smile too, so xe nodded.
            “I will take you to a ball,” xe said.
            Xe never enjoyed the balls, as much as xe wanted to.
            “I will go,” said Seryy.
            It was unfortunate.

III.

Moscow was cold.
            Snow fell with the ashes. The moon was slim, elegant, and so kindly drawn. The air glowed.
            Seryy was cold and pale. The ashes fell upon their bare shoulders.
            Motya was not cold. Xe was not warm, either; there was a rose in xyr hair.
            The ballroom was white. Seryy was not; they were dove grey and scared.
            Motya was not either. Xe was red, brilliant.
            People danced. Motya never did; xe watched, mostly. Tonight, Seryy watched too. They were both lost in the shine of silk dresses and glint of rich jackets; the smiles, the warm eyes, the blossoming dances caught under oil lamps.
            It was warm in the ballroom, though Seryy was cold. Feet clattered on the floor. Fog rose on dark windows.
            Motya was behind them. They stood near the doors.
            It was cold when the door opened, but Seryy flushed.

Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich.
            An eye.
            A look.
            A mouth.
            A smile.
            And Seryy began to crack.

IV.

Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich.
            A flash of silver. Snow-sparkling jacket. A slow, coy smile.
            It was bewitching. Pale, luminous, starry-eyed. Captivating.
            Motya did not notice it. But Seryy did.
            It walked to the centre of the floor, turning slowly. Its bright hair glistened. It spun, heels clipping. Its eyes gleamed.
            Its eyes gleamed at Seryy.
            Motya did not notice it, but xe noticed Seryy.
            “Don’t,” xe said.
            But it could not hear xim. So it came.
It bowed its head to Seryy, smiling so gently at them both that its mouth trembled.
“My name is Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich,” it said. “Or Larya.”
            “Larya,” said Seryy.
            Larya extended its hand.
            “Don’t,” Motya said again. Quietly.
            Seryy and Larya began to dance.

V.

Larya was smiling. It could not help it, with Seryy.
            It smiled when they took its hand. It smiled when they told it their name. And it smiled when they did, softly and slowly and as if they were surprised by it.
            Their back was soft, tucked under smooth grey silk. Larya held them gently, afraid to fall away yet uncertain of Seryy’s delicacy.
            For their eyes were large and grey and entirely entrancing. So wide, so open; but Larya could not read a line of their poetry.
            Nor could Seryy read its lips. Its fine features, its bright eyes, were not lost on them. But they could not understand its light, its pure and gentle joy.
            And Motya could not read their distant faces, rotating along the marble-tiled music box. Xe worried—xe always did. Xe worried, and did not trust. High, elegant Motya, and xyr distant eyes, could not trust.
            Slipping apart from the dancers, Larya and Seryy spun into a grey, shadowy corridor. Motya could not see them. And not one of them could read.

VI.

Steps on marble floors. Spinning skirts. Grey hands pressed to cool ones. Laughing mouths, shy smiles.
            Hurrying feet. Bustling dresses. Dim corners and soft paintings and a hard wall and

A mouth.
            It was cool. Soft. Sweet, and brighter than Seryy could have imagined. Simple.
            The wall was cold. So was Larya. Seryy could feel everything, everything, upon their bare shoulders.
            Larya touched their arm, gently. And yet Seryy trembled as if burned.
            It was too much. Too gentle, too sweet, too blindingly bright.
            It reached for Seryy’s waist, grey silk wrapped tight around their soft middle. Seryy felt darker, more bitterly intense than they ever had. Their skin tingled hot and cold.
            There was no one there with them; no one could be. They began to cry.

VII.

They kept crying. Larya did not mind. It stroked their cheek.
            Its hands were delicate, soft. Seryy caught one in their own and squeezed it.
            Then Larya said, “I will go.”
            Its eyes would not betray it. It turned away, taking its glow with it.
            And Seryy was alone. It was very quiet.
            Except for the sobs, which stung their ears.
            They sunk to the carpet and pressed their hands to their face. It was dark, and they were lost within the corridor.
            They did not understand.
            They did not understand.
            They did not understand Larya, or Motya.
            They did not understand Seryy.

Motya did not find them. Xe searched, even before everyone had left. But eventually Seryy stumbled out and fell upon xim, and Motya could do nothing more than catch them in xyr arms.
            Xe wrapped xyr arms around their bare shoulders. Xyr hands were smaller than Larya’s, and stiffer.
            “It hurt you,” xe whispered.
            Seryy’s skirts ruffled against them both.
            But their face was pale, their cheeks streaked with tears. They did hurt. So they said nothing.
            If Motya had been different, xe would have noticed why the tears bruised their cheeks. Why they shivered and curled into themself.
            But xe was Motya. So xe just took their hands and held them close and whispered to them again, “Let’s go home.”

VIII.

Seryy did not wear another dress.
            They did not wear much, for a day. Loose nightclothes and a sad, lost look.
            They had lain in bed, burning up with fever. All of their grey had been near black. But they were a little better now, and a little cooler.
            Motya was kind. Warm and a little overbearing, but good to Seryy. Neither was miserable. Seryy was not happy, either, but they were quiet.
            The day after they wore grey. A jacket, tight on their shoulders and collared. Their skin was a little colder, a little fainter; outside, the ashes fell a little more softly. They gathered upon the windowsill when Seryy came to look.
            They grew more quiet and less unhappy. Pale and grey, and ashier; thin and quivering as though they too had fallen from the sky. They were not better, but they were forgetting.

Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich. But though the name was not said, it was thought. Not by Seryy-- they thought only of its mouth, when they did. But Motya remembered the name, often and distinctly, and worried when xe saw it on letters.
            They were not frequent. They were not personal. Invitations, greetings; they were gentle, and a little hopeful. Motya read them and burned them.
            They did not stop. Motya left them on xyr desk and did not read them.

Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich. The first time its name was spoken in the house.
            Seryy’s eyes grew wide. Their jacket shifted.
            Motya stood, ever graceful.
            Xyr dress was looser today, longer. Xe wore a shawl. And red, of course.
            The hall was dark. And in it stood Ilarion, bright and snowy and watching xim carefully.
            “Seryy,” it said. Even though they both knew.
            “Did you hurt them?” xe asked. Even though neither knew.
            “I’m sorry,” said Ilarion.
            Its eyes were uncertain. Soft, like always, and gentle; but worried, and a little lost.
            Motya decided something.
            “They will not like to see you,” xe said.
            Ilarion followed xim into the library.        

IX.

Seryy had been watching the door silently. They looked down.
            It was bright and hard to look at. Not so glow-in-the-dark as it was in the shadows, but shimmering. And Motya smiled kindly.
            Larya sat. Nearer than it should have, but Seryy would not say anything.
            “Are you well, Seryy?” Larya asked. Too ordinary.
            Seryy could not say anything.
            No one spoke. Seryy grew into the silence until it was almost comfortable.
            It was comforting, at least. For when Larya began to speak Seryy could remember how long it had been silent, and how long words had failed.

X.

Short inhale; long, trembling exhale. That was how Larya finished. Its words were echoing still, staggering. Motya could not look at it.
            And when it was done Seryy had nothing left to hold onto. If they had been warm, they would have cried.
            Looking at Larya, they flashed hot.
            For Larya was gentle, but it could not stop its force. And Motya was kind, but xe could not lessen xyr distance. They could not change these things for Seryy. For someone, maybe. But not Seryy.
            So they cried and did not look at Larya. And it took their hands and held them against its chest.
            Its hands were delicate, cool. Its eyes, its pleading smile, were gentle but firm. And Seryy felt so afraid of it, the gentleness and the softness and the cool hands that pressed theirs so dearly.
            Larya and Motya could see it. But they could not change for Seryy, and they could not help them. So they looked at each other and pinned their mouths shut to stop the sobs--Motya’s a gash of red and worried; Larya’s pink and tender and pressed into a beautiful frown.
            They were together, the two of them. But Seryy was alone. 

XI.

They did not stay in Moscow. It was a clear choice, but it was a difficult one. The gentle snow, the slender moon, were slowly charming.           

Annikova Matryona Rostislavova.
            Motya sighed when they told xim, but xe didn’t speak. Xe was wearing red that day, and xe was warm. 

Kireyev Ilarion Vasilievich.
            Larya took longer. It knew, of course, but it did not want to.
            It was not its fault. It knew that too, and it repeated it to itself during the long, ash-coloured nights.
            Seryy had told it so, when they said goodbye. Goodbye had been worse than no

They had taken a dress with them, when they left. It was draped over their arm, grey and gauzy and a little optimistic.
            They stepped out into the streets. Bit by bit, walking slowly, they left. Alone.
            Grey. Pale, and wide-eyed, and grey. And alone.
            And the ashes stopped. They littered the streets and drifted down from rooftops, but no more fell. The grey in the city washed away, buried under gentle snows. Brighter. Purer. Not more, not better, but easier. And everything was quiet.
            At night, the moon broke through the clouds. It rose high above Moscow and glowed, young and silver. And in the cold night air and the brilliance of its light, xe smiled.