Catherine is sitting up when Igor enters the room. It has become his custom, after working for a couple of hours in the morning, to pay a dutiful visit to his wife. He always comes at the same time. It’s part of the rhythm of his day.
Catherine has readied herself. Since experiencing the terrifying sight of her own insides, she has become more aware of her appearance, too. In an attempt to spruce herself up and look more attractive, she has combed out her hair and rouged her cheeks. She has even put some lipstick on. She greets Igor smilingly as he walks in the door, continuing to comb her hair.
His heart sinks. He can see what she’s doing. He responds with a forced smile. “You look very nice,” he says, complimenting her. But she wants more than compliments. He knows that. She needs attention and tenderness. She wants his love. And this he is unable, or at least unwilling, to give. There is a reined-in element to his voice that communicates the glum unenthusiastic truth.
He finds he needs to remind himself that she is a good person. He loved her once, with youthful ardor and with a passion that seemed reckless. They had braved their parents’ opposition to marry, and risked alienating their good name; such was the strength of their innocent love. He remembers his family’s disapproving glances at the wedding, the sparsely attended ceremony, the shamefaced priest. He can still smell the musk of incense prickling his nostrils, still see the gold ring, and her face trembling beneath a veil as she recited her vows.
But that seems like a lifetime ago, now: before the war, before the Revolution, before The Rite. Since then their lives have changed beyond measure. Looking at Catherine, he no longer recognizes her as his bride. His love for her, like her health, has slowly eroded so that only a sense of filial attachment, like a last tenaciously clinging bit of ligament, remains to connect them together.
“Very nice,” he reiterates. He hopes somehow the repetition might invest the phrase with the weight of truth.
He cannot, though, bring himself to say anything more. He does feel bad at the way he has treated her. But he is also repelled by her sickness. Atom by atom, she seems to be decaying, whereas with Coco there is always some kind of shimmer or sparkle that affirms her own existence and his. It is as much as he can do to regard his wife blankly, in the hope that she might understand.
Catherine’s eyes fill with sadness. Her scalp stretches tight with the pressure of her thoughts. She continues brushing her hair in short, robust strokes. But there is something automatic about the gesture, which is no longer necessary. “Why do you hate me?” she says, throwing the brush onto the bed. She wants the action to produce a noise, but the brush hits the covers with a muffled thump.
“I don’t hate you.”
“What have I done wrong?” So much heat is contained within the question that her tongue seems almost to burn.
“You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I don’t want to be ill, you know.”
Guilt sweeps through him. The air around him seems to turn thin. Relenting, he extends a hand to her cheek and makes pathetically to stroke it.
In that vulnerable face of hers he has a glimpse suddenly of Catherine as a young girl—her lips set prim and her blue eyes sparkling. But her lips have become blurry, he sees, and her eyes seem squeezed of brightness.
In a voice gone calm again, she asks, “Do you still feel anything for me?”
“Is she so different?”
He looks inside himself and tries to be honest. “No.”
“She understands nothing of your music. She collects people. Can’t you see?”
“That’s a little harsh.”
After a pause: “You know, you’re not yourself when you’re with her.”
“You become someone else.”
“You’ve never seen us alone together.”
There is, implicit in his too-quick answer, a confession. Her look sharpens. He makes to elaborate, to diffuse the element of revelation involved in his unthinking response.
She seizes the moment. “Are you in love with her, Igor?”
His lips seek to frame a statement. In vain, his mouth tries to conjure the right words. Outdone, he refuses to meet her gaze. Repelled, she pushes him off.
The look of pleading in her eyes is replaced with an expression of rancor and hurt. All the tiny antagonisms of her life are magnified and focused into this one moment. Each small torture she has endured at mealtimes, each brief meeting of Coco and Igor’s knees, the anguish of every complicitous grin distills itself vividly into the mixture of pain and humiliation now visible on her face.
“You disgust me!”
“I’m sorry,” he responds inadequately.
The energy she has generated in an effort to be conciliatory discovers now a fresh outlet in bitterness. “Why do you pretend? And who do you think you’re fooling treating me like this, as if I’m an idiot?”
Igor thinks this time before answering, “It’s not because I don’t love you.”
“Don’t try to justify your actions, Igor, please.”
“You’re still my wife.”
“How privileged that makes me feel!”
“Catherine . . . try to understand . . .”
“I understand all too well.”
“I’ve tried not to hurt you.”
“Am I supposed to be grateful?”
“What can I say?”
“You can say you’re sorry!”
“Sorry,” he says. But he’s not; not really.
“You wouldn’t behave like this if your mother were here,” she flings at him. “It’s very convenient for you, isn’t it, that she’s still stuck in Russia?”
Igor remains upright and unmoving on the bed, saying nothing, stung by the remark about his mother. It is true, of course. Adultery and exile, like everything else that holds him up, are interconnecting simplicities. Banished along with him have been the usual prohibitions governing his behavior. Deracination grants certain permissions, licenses certain acts. A stern moral ombudsman, his mother has always operated as a kind of conscience for him. While he wouldn’t wish her ill, he has felt obscurely liberated since they were forced apart.
Catherine is right, he recognizes. He is a coward. Though isn’t this scene somehow inevitable—as unpleasant as it is necessary? Things can’t go on as they are. He has an urge to confess as well as to conceal. He wants to tell the truth. Yet how do you tell your wife you don’t love her? His mouth is crammed with the unsayable. It would be wrong to stay with her merely out of pity. There lingers still an impulse to reach out, to hold and reassure, even though ultimately this might prove more cruel.
“I take it you’ve slept with her.”
He can’t bring himself to lie any longer. He looks away. His silence is the affirmation she requires.
“Does that matter?” The impulse to reach out is beaten back.
“I’d like to know.”
Wearily. “Catherine, I don’t keep count.”
She is wild-eyed, not so much with rage as with disbelief at finding herself trapped like this. The room around her seems to change shape.
For Igor, the weight of his past life with Catherine slides against the now of his existence with Coco. He feels the friction, jarring his insides. He loathes himself at this moment. In bristling self-defense, he senses something ruthless, even brutal, enter his head. “I thought you’d be glad,” he hurls at her.
“What? Are you insane?”
“Well, you hate making love.”
Catherine shakes her head slowly, then more fiercely. “I do not!”
“How can you say otherwise? You’re revolted by it.”
“That’s not true!”
“That’s not the impression I get.”
“You’re saying that Coco’s doing me a favor? Is that it?”
“I have needs, Catherine.”
“And I have needs, too. Enormous needs.”
“Well, perhaps the fact is, we can’t fulfill each other . . .” He hates what he’s saying, but it is how he feels. Cornered, he knows no other way out.
“I can’t believe you can be so heartless. I find this so hurtful, I can’t even explain.” Her neck swells. The vertical cords at her throat grow taut, and her chest begins to heave. She wills herself, with an urgency that might move objects, not to cry. Her whole being strains to contain the misery that sweeps through her. “I’ve supported you, endured your moods, borne your children . . .” She turns away from him. Pulling the covers up to her face, she chokes off the sobs that rise inside her.
She has been content until now with his long hours at the piano, his frequent absences due to recitals and tours. She has tolerated his anger and his pride, his arrogance. But she has never before had to reckon with his adultery. She feels obliterated. A crushing sense of redundancy descends upon her. “I’m suffocating here,” she gasps.
The shadows of leaves agitate darkly against the wall. Objects in the room seem conspiratorial suddenly. The lilies are vicious tongues. A shell becomes a secret ear. The curtains exist to conceal things from her. Her fists tighten in the covers. Something in her wants to explode. A surge of violence rises within and makes her face stretch wide.
“You bastard!” she hisses. Her voice is choked. “And with that whore!”
The primitive in her takes over. She feels like slapping him across the face, grabbing his hair and yanking it, kicking out at him. But the impulse only lasts a split second. Violence is not her style. There’s nothing savage in her. She’s too decorous and restrained. The layers of politeness are too thick within her, and she curses herself for it. For just a moment back then, she might have brought her fists down upon him. She might have felt better for it. He may, she has time to reflect, even have respected her more. But such brute instincts soon drain from her, along with any remaining energy.
His voice is level in correcting her. “She’s not a whore, Catherine.”
Sensing a rawness enter her throat, she says, “I feel sick.”
Continuing to sit there, they avoid touching. He looks at her, conscious of the cruelty of his words. He can’t believe he’s uttered them. He’s propelled by a momentum that cannot be stayed. He had to tell her. It was spilling from him. He regrets not doing it more gently, but he feels now strangely unburdened, relieved.
In seeking a gesture of consolation, he offers, “We still have four beautiful children.” Saying this, something clenches in his chest.
It is not clear that Catherine hears it. The effort of constraint has become too much. Her whole frame shakes. “Why don’t you love me?” Her voice in its attempt at a scream sounds hoarse and broken. Silently she yields to tears. Crumpling darkly, her face is transfigured. Her jaw shudders with a grief remarkable both for its intensity and her attempt to suppress it. She manages, “I’m scared, Igor.”
“I’m really sick. I feel like something is pulling at me, dragging out my insides.” The air around her seems unbreathable. A sense of terror crams her chest.
“But the doctor says the prognosis is good.”
“I know, but I saw it with my own eyes. I saw my death.”
“What you saw was just an X-ray.”
Her voice lowers suddenly. “Can I ask you something?”
“There isn’t anything else, is there?”
“What do you mean?”
Her eyes shine, hopelessly benign. “I mean this is it, isn’t it? There isn’t anything beyond.”
“No, I can’t accept that.”
“But take away the fact of our bodies, our physical existence—strip that away and what’s left?”
Igor hesitates, puzzled for a moment, his face radiantly attentive to everything around him. His eyes pass over the icons around her bed, the curtains stirring at the window. He hears the birdsong outside. Then the answer comes, as though it were so blindingly simple a child might supply it. A world held together by chance rhythms, invisible strings. A sublime incarnation of His voice, hovering solitary, suspended above the void. “Why, music, of course.”
She stares at him in a state of deep incomprehension. Baffled and saddened, she shakes her head.
His response is instinctive but, he is aware, profoundly unsatisfactory. He opens his mouth in an effort to say more, but the words won’t come. After a long pause, which deepens the gulf between them, Igor rises solemnly, touching his fingers to his throat. He makes to kiss her but she draws away. He stands there motionless for a few moments. Then he leaves the room without a further word or look and returns to work in his study.
Catherine weeps stonily. Her face is contorted, her eyes bloodshot and scoured. Her sorrow seems bottomless.
Downstairs, the piano’s tone of self-congratulation mocks her. For some minutes afterward, her chest rises and falls with the effort of deep unmusical sobs.
10 September 1920
I hope all is well. I need hardly tell you we all miss you here. Catherine and the children send their love and kisses.
I have written again to the embassy, requesting they grant you a visa. The ambassador is a reasonable man. He foresees no real difficulty. But there is a backlog of such cases, he says, piled up at the ministry, and they are taking their time in processing each one. Be patient, and we continue to pray that you will join us very soon.
The children are all well. Theo is growing into a fine boy. He enjoys his drawing more and more. He completed an excellent sketch of the house yesterday, which I enclose so you’ll have an idea of where we live. Soulima is coming along nicely on the piano. He has the self-discipline, I think, to become very good indeed. His fingers are supple and he has a quick mind, too. Ludmilla is growing taller all the time. She has shot up over the last few months. She needs larger sizes already in all her clothes. And Milène is adorable. She has taken to one of the puppies in the house and wants to keep it, I think.
Catherine is still unwell, however. Recently she underwent tests, and I’m afraid she’s been stricken again with a mild form of consumption. She remains positive, though, and the air and warmth here are all to her advantage. In addition, the doctor who tends her is splendid—full of encouragement and good sense.
I’m working regularly and well. With Diaghilev I am to revive The Rite again next year. A copy of the score has been sent from Berlin. I’m revising and developing it assiduously. It’s good just to be able to work. And it’s a blessed relief not to have to think about rent and bills. My patron is generous and hospitable, and I’m sure you’d like her very much.
Anyway, keep well. We all give you hugs and blow you tender kisses. We miss you.
Your loving son,
Late that afternoon, Igor feeds his parrots. All the birds are kept in an outhouse along with the garden tools and furniture, spades and forks, and bits of netting. A pair of shears hangs on a hook, its blades splayed so wide it seems almost improper. A musty smell rises from the timber of the shed. Inside, the humidity is tropical. Outdoors, for a change, it is quiet. Thanks to Coco, the children have been enrolled in a local school.
Ritually Igor fills the birds’ bowls with water. He pours millet and seed into the food troughs and removes the odd torn feather and droppings from the bottom of each cage. Placing his head next to the wire, he scrutinizes their quick, spasmodic movements. The space in the shed is echoey. Collectively they generate quite a din.
Behind him, he hears the door click open. It’s Coco.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“They are,” she concedes. She looks at the parrots and lovebirds with renewed attention as they move on their perches like tightly wound toys.
“Look at the engineering that’s gone into those wings. There must be a God to have managed that, don’t you think?”
“Oh, come on, some birds are just one step up from vermin. They’re pests, most of them.”
“Not to me.”
He tickles one bird’s underside. With a crooked forefinger he strokes the feathers on its head.
“Watch this,” he says.
He extends his tongue with a few bread crumbs on it through the bars of the cage. The bird looks at him. Its narrow skull twitches in response. Then its beak pecks unerringly at the crumbs on his tongue.
“Ugh!” Coco exclaims. “Don’t they nip you?”
Igor sniggers. “No. They’re very precise, and their eyes are much sharper than ours. Than mine, anyhow.” Igor caresses the beak of the bird, which purrs in appreciation.
“They must have tiny brains.”
“That doesn’t stop them singing.”
“I know. I hear them.”
Igor whistles. He tuts and clicks with his tongue behind his teeth, angling his neck with comical stiffness. The birds shift their feet and tut back, their heads twitching absently. He opens the cage and encourages one of the parrots to perch on his finger.
“Do you want to hold it?”
“Are you sure?”
Cradling it, she feels the bird’s heart beat rapidly against her palm.
“They love it here,” he says. “The climate is just right for them.”
“Unlike you?” Coco suggests. She continues to pet it.
“I do find it hot, still.”
He thinks of his argument with Catherine this morning. It depresses him to consider what might happen next. At the moment, he and Coco just steal what time they can alone. They have their afternoons in Paris. But it would be better to spend the nights together, to get used to the sound of one another’s breathing, and for each to feel the skin of the other close and touching all night long. At the same time, Igor is determined to keep the relationship discreet. He has no wish to humiliate Catherine or to hurt the children. And since the dreadful scene this morning, the truth is he’s not sure what he feels. Numbness, chiefly. And sadness. Looking after the birds, he finds, grants him a kind of monastic calm.
“Well, it’s soon going to get much cooler, if that’s any consolation. Maybe the birds will have to fly south.”
“The need to migrate can drive some birds mad. They’ve been known to dash their heads against the bars.”
She hands the parrot back to him. Gently he replaces it inside the cage. Slipping his finger between the wires, he allows another to peck playfully at his nail.
“I hope you don’t feel the same way.”
Being with Coco, he reflects, is like being drunk all the time. It’s marvelous, but he wonders how long he can sustain it. The sensation is intoxicating. He has never felt so light-headed. It’s extraordinary, like the giddy sensation you get with a first cigarette. He finds it impossible to concentrate. Sometimes, he longs just to come up for air. And physically she drains him. A fellatricious little minx, like a snake she seems capable of swallowing someone twice her size.
“Well, do you?”
“Feel the same way?”
Turning from the cage to face her, he says, “You know what I miss?”
“Snow,” he says. It matches the present blankness of his mind.
“Yes. Real snow. Not the powdery stuff you get here, but huge piles of it billowing all over the place and falling for days.”
Coco touches Igor’s hands and beckons him closer. “Come on.”
“It’s the heat. It affects me, too, you know.”
“Yes. I want you in my room.”
“But . . .” He remembers the children are at school now. The decision is made for him. He submits. The stronger woman wins, again.
Slinking out of the outhouse, they slip quietly upstairs, Coco leading him insistently by a single finger for the first time to her bed.
An hour later, sitting at her window, she sees Igor in the garden below. On an impulse, she grabs a pillow and begins ripping out feathers by the handful from inside. She walks back to the window and undoes the hasp.
Hearing the window open above him, Igor looks up. He needs to raise a hand to shield his eyes against the sun. Coco smiles broadly, leaning out. He gives her a quizzical look. Her lips lift into the tension of a smile.
Abruptly, “Here’s your snow!”
And she lets fall a blizzard of feathers that land in a white cloud on his head and on his jacket. Several more fistfuls are released in a soft white storm, each feather shilly-shallying airily to and fro. They almost blind him as they catch and scatter the sunlight in their spinning, almost dazzle him with their promise of a brightness beyond.