Silarus 303

Kira’s Palm

Silarus 303 Time relentlessly consumes days, rocks and the mind like a dripping drop. Everything is connected with it. Landscapes and even mountain ranges, expressive faces with strong personalities are transformed.
Thus, stripped by time, arrived the day which seemed so distant to Kira Alexandrovna Bilovskaya, the active and efficient official who for around thirty years had been in charge of the secretariat of the Superior post-graduate Courses for writers at the Institute of Literature “Maxim Gorky” in Moscow.
On that pale and sad day lit by an early summer sun, Kira Alexandrovna reached her office prematurely while an office-cleaner, surprised by her presence, was sweeping the dark corridor. During the night she had felt an inexplicable urge to bask between these walls. Kira Alexandrovna experienced that same strange feeling which she remembered having already felt at the approach of some dramatic moments of her life. She looked around her office furnished with high wooden shelves full of books and registers and her first glance fell on her palm which, far from its imaginary oasis, blossomed on the window opening from which one could see an inner garden awoken after a long winter lethargy.
It was the last day of her office work. Kira Alexandrovna sat down at the table, devoid of all thoughts and became aware of a strange, worrying exhaustion which she attributed to the long sleepless night full of souvenirs and endless thoughts. She arose to open the window and disperse the foul air of the office. She remained standing near the flourishing plant which, in spite of its Mediterranean origin, to everyone’s surprise had adapted itself after having absorbed for years the faint light of Russian winters. She looked at it with tenderness as she did every morning greeting it and giving it its daily caress.
Gradually the buzz of the young students who were entering the lecture rooms increased and she heard greetings exchanged at the door of her office. It was still the month of June with its drizzle, but one could already feel the timid signs of a milder climate. An ample box stood on the table ready to be occupied and Kira Alexandrovna started slowly to fill it with her personal belongings. She had almost finished when she heard some hurried steps which stopped at her office. Irina’s slim figure and bright smile appeared at the door. Her clear laugh was a prelude to their warm embrace. Then suddenly both became silent.
The young student sat down at the desk trying to create an atmosphere detached from the reason of her morning visit. Kira Alexandrovna Bilovskaya had been the leading spirit of the Superior Courses of Literature for around thirty years which were now drawing to a close. She continued absentmindedly to fill the large box with objects which had assumed a particular sentimental meaning: post-cards from Europe, files, photos and books with dedications from students who had achieved fame as writers or professors some of whom taught at universities abroad. At that moment she looked like a person in search of a particular flower in the middle of a vast meadow.
Kira Alexandrovna continued her work distractedly as from the long corridor and the open door one heard the buzz of the students entering the lecture rooms. Some of them, ignorant of that date, stopped at her door with a cheerful greeting which she acknowledged with a sad smile.
The room was brimming with voices of students who came to ask her for favours not allowed by the severe regulations, while others delicately asked her for a cup of boiling tea to warm themselves, especially on cold winter mornings. A cup of tea, said Kira Alexandrovna, cannot be refused even to the worst enemy. This small, plump woman with her kind and motherly manner, sometimes rough for no reason, had the right word for everyone, even of comfort in love problems. She was the confident, counsellor and mother to all.
The opaque, fake silver electric samovar stood triumphantly in its usual place on a small table near the shelves and also seemed to have ended its role in this hove of tough and lively students. It was therefore carefully wiped with a cloth and placed in a box.
At last the school bell rang and lessons began stopping the slamming of the doors and cries of admonishment of professors to unruly students, so that all became silent.
Irina remained in Kira Alexandrovna’s studio and as was her habit, spoke a lot to divert the thoughts of her elderly friend of the solitude which was awaiting her, when suddenly her eyes caught sight of the small palm which she had admired for years like all those who love the plant world.
Irina remembered the exact day on which, to thank her friend for a favour, she gave her this plant of the “Washingtonia filifera” species which found its ideal habitat in this grey office room.
The extreme care with which Kira Alexandrovna treated it with smiles and tender words contributed to increase the natural interest of the young students who came to her office, partly because of a real “bucolic” interest and in part to gain her sympathy.
At first Irina could not find the right words to express the thought she had in her mind, when, although oppressed by the reality of the moment, she suddenly asked what would happen to the plant which by now had reached 150 centimetres in height and in breadth.
Perhaps a sad fate awaited it, placed in a corridor where it would lose its vitality and be displaced here and there or, at best, it was her vague idea, it would end up in the studio of the Director of the Faculty. “How will you transport the plant?” asked Irina.
“I don’t know. I have no idea. It will be very difficult to find someone who would bring it home to me, since Spartakovskaya street is rather far from here”, replied Kira Alexandrovna in a resigned voice.
A grievous atmosphere fell after her sad words and the fate imagined by Irina seemed to be a forecast. The young plant still in its growing phase, merited a different fate, in an African oasis surrounded by a flourishing countryside, near some fresh stream.
After having filled the cardboard boxes with her belongings, Kira Alexandrovna approached the window which Irina had thrown open to give a farewell silent look, full of meaning, at the inner garden of the building described by Michael Bulgakov in his famous novel “The Maestro and Margherita” with green trees dominated by lilac, white and purple flowers growing around the bronze monument to Alexander Herzen. The air was still crisp but precluded the imminent summer warmth much invoked by the inhabitants of the cold city.
Kira Alexandrovna meditated on the view from the second floor of the Institute which had delighted her for many years. She knew she was losing it forever. However, at that moment, the two women heard from the door which had remained open, a trampling along the silent corridor which was growing nearer. Through a mysterious sense we possess, the secretary felt that it had something to do with her, perhaps a visit or a farewell greeting.
When the trampling reached the door, the two women understood its meaning. The plump figure of the Director holding three carnations, followed by a swarm of other professors and two office-cleaners, presented himself with a wide smile and a jovial air.
The Director was the first to embrace her, followed by the others. The two office-cleaners also partook in this sincere embrace full of esteem and gratitude for her decennial work.
Her work had been the supporting framework of an organisation appreciated by everyone. Kira Alexandrovna received all these demonstrations of esteem without saying a word. She could not speak. She did not know what to say and two tears appeared in her hazel eyes rimmed by golden eye-glasses.
Her mind drew a barrier between herself and those present in the office. The Director said words of praise and esteem which, however, were those of discourses made on similar occasions. One of Kira Alexandrovna’s closest women colleagues had the sad idea of asking her what will happen to the small palm.
When Kira Alexandrovna shook her head and did not reply almost stupefied, there sounded the clear voice of Igor, the office-cleaner who had contended many a battle together with her: “If you want I will bring it to you”.
After a month had passed, on a fine July morning, at the end of the lessons, Igor presented himself on the ninth floor of Spartakovskaya street 22 to bring her the plant she missed so much.
Leaving the lift Igor carefully brought the bound up plant into Kira Alexandrovna’s small flat and with much apprehension transplanted it into a pot previously prepared by the owner. The plant, thus repotted, was put into a square wooden container and placed near the only window creating something like a graceful Chinese silhouette.
Igor’s trouble for this transportation merited a pecuniary compensation, but the young man refused it categorically, though he accepted a drop of cognac, adjusted his vest and after having been gratefully embraced by his ex-colleague, disappeared in the lift.
Thus the love-story of a human being and a plant continued even in a more personal and intimate manner.
Mario Tornello “Figure of a woman”, drawing with biro A new period was nearing, that of a serene retirement which, however, was on the brink of poverty and melancholy, mitigated by the rare visits of Kira Alexandrovna’s ex-students. The ownership of the flat was the sole consolation. However, the ceiling of the room in which the plant was placed, being much lower than that of the office of the secretariat, did not permit the palm to rise to its characteristic majestic full height so that with time, the larger leaves had to bend, thus losing a large part of its arboreal charm.
Although Kira Alexandrovna and the plant lived like two inseparable souls, the former felt pangs of a mute anguish overcome her in that unique room with its old-fashioned worn-out furniture which, together with a large red Afghan carpet, furnished the living space with its ample Turkish style bed with numerous cushions and a woollen oriental style bedspread where she spent most of her time. Her only future would now be to remember the past.
On frequent sleepless nights she felt an anguish due to her new form of life as she lay in her solitary bed as a childless divorcee and she caught herself meditating on time she would have liked to stop. It had slipped like sand through her fingers and the sole consolation was that it passed with equal measure for the powerful and the poor, the miserable and the great.
The first fragile daily light entered gently due to lack of shutters as is the use in northern countries and her first steps were always directed to the spiny green bush where, in that miserable space, vegetated another life besides hers. That glazed green brought her a gay note which she always greeted with her morning monologue that had become a ritual. Kira Alexandrovna’s immutable smile was often accompanied by thoughts devoid of a reply, while besides the large leaves of the palm, she also distractedly admired the large golden dome of the neighbouring church of Elokhovskaya silhouetted in her window. Even at the time of religious adversity, that sacred place had inspired her with meditation. Recently restored and repainted light blue, the church recovered its ancient splendour which was reflected in its domes.
With time Kira Alexandrovna’s solitude did not diminish but increased. She regretted not having a cat for company while she pondered over her passed memories dedicating meticulous care to her green creature.
Several years of solitude and meditation passed while she silently observed from her window, as often happens to retired people, the hurried steps of those who passed by at every season, under rain or snow, or the radiant sun, crossing the noisy Spartakovskaja street on their way to the “Baumanskaja” subway station. Accompanied by the noise of the chaotic city in which by now she felt a stranger, the cancer of time was slowly devouring her and continuously increased the void around her.
Kira Alexandrovna missed the fervent life of the “Maxim Gorky” Institute, the gush of course-participants and students, their unrestrained vitality, the tea she offered them. She particularly missed her mental activity in organising the Superior Courses of literature which often detained her return home provoking the divorce from her husband, head engineer of a famous firm of military plane construction and consequently her actual isolation. She missed her dedication to work which sometimes provoked public praise. She was aware that she had been a valid pawn of the Institute.
The psychological downfall overtook her, accelerating in a few years that silence of the ninth floor, her last journey, which her neighbours discovered by chance.
A couple of nephews, amongst the most “greedy” ones, interested in her apartment, rushed to see and all became clear.
Kira Alexandrovna was buried in the cemetery near her home where a compassionate hand had deposited a branch of a palm, as though wanting them to continue their dialogue.
Several days after her death, the two nephews hastened to the flat with the obvious intention of taking possession of the eighteenth century silver ware kept in the small space of a glass case. In that unique room they noticed, to their surprise and disappointment, that the palm had completely bent touching the floor, obviously dead. Dry and exhausted, in a few days it had finished to exist. That invisible bond had snapped off.

Roma, 2004/2015

P.S. Mario Tornello had started to elaborate this subject immediately after our long stay in Moscow in June 2004, when he met my friend and was fascinated by the particular relation she had with her palm. Unfortunately many engagements in the following years prevented him from finishing this story which remained in a rough copy and which, at a certain point, followed a double track, similar to the London “tube”. Disappointed that his work remained unfinished, I decided to conclude it, as I knew well both the background and the protagonist. I assumed the work of a “plastic surgeon” and tried to reconstruct only one literary track on the basis of the various original versions and also to fill the narrative gaps as well as to correct some urban errors. My sole wish was to succeed in rendering on paper the beautiful love-story between a human being and a plant which Mario would have liked to see realized.

Irina Barancheeva

Published in “Silarus” of Battipaglia n.303 – 2016

Translated from Italian by Assia Boutskoy