This story was first published in Interfictions 2 (Small Beer Press 2009, edited by Christopher Barzak and Delia Sherman; we are grateful to the author and editors for permission to reprint it here. It was selected for this week's issue by Charles Tan; read his introduction to the story here.
My father wanted to write his memoirs but he didn’t have enough confidence in his English to pull it off on his own. He had come to this country in 1974; after thirty-five years he still had trouble with his pronouns and verb tenses. Nevertheless, he did not want to produce such a document in Polish. America is where I grew up, where my father met his second wife (finally, a soul mate), where my half-brother and sister were born. Feeling the need to record his life on paper quickly, he decided that I would become his amanuensis. The choice was obvious, as my father had agreed to subsidize my college education, even though I insisted on studying Comparative Literature over the more practical Engineering. He is the sort of man who likes to see a return on his investment.
We met over three consecutive weekends in July at a modest resort in the Catskills, my father dictating in Polish while I translated into English.
Before I tell you the story he told me about his encounter with Count Stanislas August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, I need to explain a thing or two about my father. For the past three decades he had been working for the same engineering firm in Manhattan until it was sold to a large multinational corporation. Not long after the merger, my father was deemed redundant. He found himself suddenly at home, alone (his wife worked, the kids were already out of the nest), with nothing to fill the next seven years before he reached retirement age, at which time he could allow himself to behave like a retiree.
My father repainted the apartment a calming shade of blue: the color of the sky the day he met his met his second wife while taking a stroll after Mass one September afternoon. A complete stranger to popular culture, he decided to educate himself by going to the movies every weekday afternoon, when the tickets were half price. He read three newspapers each day, cover-to-cover. For a man who had been earning his living since he was sixteen, none of these activities could make him feel like a productive human being. He felt spellbound, worthless, miserable. Unbeknownst to his family, or even to himself, he began to search for a Great Deed.
One thing my father did enjoy was taking his lunch al fresco, a pleasure he hadn’t had time for since childhood, when he and his brothers would take chunks of bread and cheese into the forest behind their grandfather’s country house and pretend that they were woodland creatures. So it was that on a crisp, russet-hued fall day my father crossed Cabrini Boulevard heading toward Ft. Tryon Park, brown bag in hand, his head full of childhood memories, and was run down by a gunmetal gray Hummer H3.
The driver, a young German with a blond crew cut, could not have been more apologetic. He simply hadn’t seen my father in his brown wool suit, camouflaged so perfectly among the dying autumn leaves of the tree-lined street. The unfortunate driver was articulate in his mortification over the accident, promising to pay for all medical expenses; all my father could hear was the German accent. And all he could think about, as he was strapped into a gurney and hoisted into the ambulance, was the day the Panzers rolled into Warsaw.
In the hospital where he stayed for two weeks while his bones knit, my father’s already somber mood descended into melancholy retrospection. Why had he survived the accident? Was it a coincidence that the driver was German? Was it some sort of sign? Although he had worked hard his entire life, was his real work about to begin?He made a mental inventory of his accomplishments: immigrating to a new country: check. Successfully raising not one, but two, families: check (though if he were entirely honest with himself, one more successfully than the other). Building a career in his profession (as opposed to driving a cab, or running a candy store, like many other immigrants must do to survive): check. Was this enough to constitute a successful life? Surely there were other things he could have done, could still do, now that he had been spared, once again. Every night before he fell asleep he tried to work on a list of future accomplishments, but he could never get beyond item # 1.
The youngest of five brothers, my father was just three years old when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but he remembered the day his family hid in the basement of their apartment building with great clarity. Polish fighters had managed to keep the Germans out of Warsaw for eleven days of a siege before they ran out of supplies. Panzers broke through fortifications and rolled down the streets while German soldiers swarmed the city, going door-to-door, looking for Polish soldiers hiding among the civilian population.
My father’s oldest brother was at the age when little boys fall in love with war. In the family’s rush to get downstairs, no one noticed that he had brought his favorite hat into the basement, the one that superficially resembled the square czapka with the scarlet band of the Zandarmeria, the Polish Military Police. When the gun shots, the screams, and the smoke had cleared the Germans discovered that their fugitive Polish soldier was just a ten-year-old boy.
Out of the hospital and recuperating in his tranquil blue apartment, my father took his pain pills and reviewed what he knew about the sequence of events from the German invasion of September 1, 1939, to the partition of Poland, just one month later, by Germany and the Soviet Union. He confirmed that nothing could have been done in those thirty-odd days to prevent his brother’s death. Really and truly the only way to undo that past event was to prevent World War II, the first and only item on his To-Do list. And if the turning point of the war did not exist in Warsaw in 1939, he would have to look for it elsewhere.
My father is an engineer, not a historian. He spent six months at the Tennessee Valley Authority Reactor Facility, reworking the electrical grid to harvest the nuclear energy more efficiently. He can track the path of an electrical current through conductors and resistors. He understands the laws of cause and effect. He was convinced that there was a specific moment, a prima mobile in the timeline of Polish history that was responsible for the sequence of events that occurred in the basement of his childhood apartment building. He started reading history books. It was not long before he found what he was looking for.
Between 1764 and 1795, Stanislas August Poniatowski was King of the Most Serene Republic of the Two Peoples, also known as the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. The official motto of his kingdom: Si Deus Nobiscum quis contra nos? (If God is with us, then who is against us?). Sadly, God could not protect Poland from its aggressive neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. As it turns out, King Poniatowski was little more than a puppet, having been forced onto the throne, against the wishes of the Polish nobility, by his former lover, Catherine the Great of Russia, who then virtually controlled the country. The one and only independent (one might say, rebellious) act of his reign was the brilliant speech he made upon the adoption of the new Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, a constitution written and ratified without the approval of King Poniatowski’s puppeteers. What happened next was the prima mobile: my father was sincerely convinced that if he could make Poniatowski retrace his steps of the night of May 3, 1791, he could change the course of Polish history, and thereby change the history of Europe, and thereby bring his brother back from the dead. How to make a King take council from a humble engineer?
I had no idea what was going on inside my father’s head when finally I convinced him to spend a few days with me and my husband in sunny Los Angeles. I remembered from growing up in New York how bad it got by February, when the charming snowdrifts left over from the Christmas holidays turned into sooty hills and valleys dotted with frozen dog shit, extremely treacherous terrain for a fifty-nine-year-old man on crutches.
As soon as I saw my father at the airport I could tell that something was troubling him besides the weather and his leg. It was the lack of purpose that got him down, I rationalized, a temporary depression brought on by the early retirement. Had I known that he was revising mental blueprints for a fantastical contraption he once made me, I would have marveled at the coincidence of taking him to see the Überorgan at the Getty.
My father once made me a beautiful little windmill. In the 5th grade I had put together a self-sustaining environment I found in the World Book Encyclopedia by filling a glass Ball jar with water, snails and aquatic plants. The plants were supposed to feed the snails, and the poop from the snails was supposed to feed the plants. It was simple and elegant, but it only got me an Honorable Mention. I vowed to do better the following year, so I came to my father and asked for his professional advice. In just a couple of hours, after dinner and before the evening news, he transformed the contents of our junk drawer into a windmill. I marveled at its miniature perfection, two feet high on our kitchen table, cute little blades spinning when I connected the red wire to the green wire. No amount of patient explanation could make me understand how the thing actually worked.
Needless to say, my submission to the Science Fair was disqualified for cheating (those were the days when it was forbidden for kids to turn in work that was actually done by their parents). I was humiliated. My father felt even worse for setting me up to fail, albeit with the best intentions. It never occurred to him that I wasn’t able to comprehend the mechanism of the windmill, even though I sat at his elbow during its construction. My father could never understand why everyone didn’t see the physical world as clearly as he did, why simple things like mathematics and science provoked confusion, distrust, and sometimes even hostility.
For instance, how would I have reacted if I figured out that what my father had made me was not just a clever toy, but a time machine? Had I known that my father had given me the means to fast-forward to a time beyond the havoc of my parents’ divorce, would I have used it? Had I known that I could skip past the 80s and 90s and settle gently into the place where I am now, at peace with myself, would I have done it? Would I look ahead, given the opportunity to use the windmill today? Probably not. Nature shows us only the tail of the lion.
The Überorgan could have been the intestinal tract of an enormous creature made from cardboard tubing, tinfoil, dry cleaner bags and electrical tape, except it played music. My jet-lagged father stood inside the light-filled atrium of the Getty Center listening to the hooting strains of Bach coming out of toilet paper rolls and promptly reminded me that he worked on the Tennessee Valley Authority Nuclear Power Plant. He wasn’t interested in children’s toys cobbled together from bits of junk.
I was deeply disappointed that my father failed to make the connection between the Überorgan and the windmill he made me. Perhaps he didn’t remember the windmill. Why should he? How could he be expected to remember an insignificant event in childhood of his first child, the one he only lived with for ten years, the one that came before the two new children, whose elementary school years were fresher in his mind?
But I was wrong to underestimate the power of the Überorgan. It jogged his memory the same way it did mine (though it was only several months later, when I sat down to transcribe his words, once again at my father’s elbow, that I finally, fully, understood the mechanism of the windmill). That night, after a light dinner, my father emptied the contents of my junk drawer into a shopping bag and locked himself into the spare bedroom.
Having already mapped out his prima mobile around the afternoon and evening of May 3, 1791, my father was still left with the “wet” problem (“wet” referring to the humid, mycelial world of human interactions, as opposed to “dry,” hygienic world of science) of manipulating a monarch. By employing the principles of electrodynamics in combination with a reverse cause/effect vector and the information he had gleaned from his history books regarding the life cycle of the average Head of State, my father concluded that favorable results would follow if he approached King Poniatowski not at the height of his reign, the previously mentioned May 3, 1791, but at its absolute nadir.
By 1798, Catherine the Great was dead and Count Poniatowski was no longer King of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. If fact, there was no commonwealth: it had been torn to pieces by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Despised by his countrymen and practically a prisoner in his own house, Count Poniatowski was forced to swallow his pride and accept an invitation from the new Emperor of Russia, Paul I, the crazy son of Catherine the Great and her only official husband, Peter III. The new tsar had invited his mother’s former lover to live out the rest of his days in St. Petersburg, with a modest pension provided by the Russian crown. Being a connoisseur of irony, Paul I even offered Poniatowski the Marble Palace in which to live, the exact same mansion his mother had built for her other lover, Gregory Orlov, who had replaced Poniatowski in her heart and bedchamber (and whose brother had killed the father of Emperor Paul I).
With all this history carefully plotted in the form of a circuit diagram, my father taped this “map” to the wall of my spare bedroom and dumped the contents of my junk drawer onto the quilt I had purchased earlier in the week in anticipation of his visit. He sorted through greasy gaskets, bent paperclips, lint-covered gum balls, rusted nails, used twist-ties, packets of soy sauce, keys to forgotten doors, a mouse trap, Hershey’s Kisses, match books without matches, a tape measure, a box of regular strength Ex-Lax, and a water pistol, keeping an inventory of everything. By midnight he had finished reconstructing the windmill time machine.
Time is an arrow. Time is a sphere without exits. Time is the reef upon which all our frail mystic ships are wrecked. Time is the fire in which we burn. Time is the longest distance between two points. Tempus fugit. Many fancy things have been said about time, but one thing everyone can agree on is that time, like space, is three dimensional. It follows that just as one is able to move freely through a three-dimensional space, one should be able to move freely through three-dimensional time. The easiest way to move freely through time is via the fourth dimension. But what is the fourth dimension?
You know when a wheel spins so fast that at a certain point it looks as if the center of the wheel is spinning in the opposite direction from the rim of the rim? Well, it does. The centrifugal forces created by a spinning wheel begin to generate, following Ampère's Law, a weak electrical current. This is not unlike what happens in the solenoid in your car, in which a three-dimensional coil wrapped around a metallic core produces a magnetic field when a current is passed through it. Thus the center of the windmill produces a weak magnetic field which begins to drag on the fabric of space-time until there’s a snag and a pucker and an accumulation of extra fabric. This extra fabric is the fourth dimension.
And if you reach in with nimble fingers into the center of a reverse-spinning wheel and pluck at a bit of that fourth dimension, you’ll find that it yields to your touch, and that it is extremely fine, and practically invisible. And if you pull and pull on the fourth dimension, you’ll pull out enough for a handful, and when you examine it you will find that it’s quite flexible. And if you keep pulling you’ll eventually pull out enough cover your entire body, like a pair of footsie pajamas, plus hood. And if you step into this garment made from the fourth dimension, you can go anywhere, because an additional property of the fabric of the fourth dimension is it pelastricity (penetration and elasticity). You can go anywhere; all you need is a map. Time is on the side of the outcast.
In 1798, St. Petersburg experienced an exceedingly mild February. The Neva was slushy, not frozen. On Millionnaya Street, just one block in from the Gulf of Finland, where the Marble Palace stood out from the candy-colored townhouses like a displaced family crypt, the arctic wind did not peel the skin from my father’s forehead, as it should have done this time of year. Though the Marble Palace was far superior to the Getty Center with regard to its form and the quality of its building materials, there was no doorman to greet my father as he climbed its wide front steps. The gardener had neglected to wrap the boxwoods in burlap and they had died in the first frost of the season. A brass lion’s head doorknocker, completely black with tarnish, produced a sound like rocks falling down a mineshaft. My father could barely contain his nervous excitement at these signs of neglect. The door swung open on creaking hinges and my father beheld Count Poniatowski. He was older, of course, than the robust image preserved by the court painters, but he was still as tall and handsome as in his prime. Wisps of fine silver hair framed his high forehead. He was dressed in carpet slippers and a blue velvet sable-trimmed robe. A beautiful white chicken was perched on his left shoulder; she too had fine silver plumage on her aristocratic head. My father bowed deeply and introduced himself. Poniatowski offered his thin old man’s hand to be kissed.
That a countryman from another century had come to visit him in his exile did not disturb the former King of Poland. He had met many exotic people during his active years, both during his youth, while attached to the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg, and in his own court. Now, left with no retinue except the old nursemaid who had taken care of the infant he had fathered with Catherine the Great (alas, mother and daughter were both dead now), Poniatowski was glad to have someone new to talk to.
The Count closed the heavy wooden door and invited my father to follow him into a pale gray marble sitting room. It was bare except for a small Bukhara rug, a shabby divan, silver candelabra, and two Karelian birch armchairs. An imposing black marble fireplace, tall enough for Poniatowski to stand in, consumed smoldering remains of the furniture that must once have decorated this room. Smoke backed out of the fireplace and crept up the marble walls; it had been years since the chimney was swept. Despite the embers, a subterranean chill hung in the air.
Poniatowski offered my father one of the armchairs and took the divan for himself. They sat in silence for a few minutes, my father stealing glances at the chicken, Poniatowski examining his neatly manicured fingernails. The chicken eyed my father in between bouts of grooming its topknot of decorative feathers. It really was the prettiest chicken my father had ever seen.
Before too long, a very old woman shuffled into the room carrying a silver tray with two cut crystal glasses. She offered one glass to my father and the other to the Count. Then she settled down into the other armchair, placed the silver tray under the chair, pulled an embroidery frame out of the pocket of her apron, and began to work.
Count Poniatowski raised his glass. “Sto lata.” (“One hundred years.”)
“Sto lata,” my father clinked glasses and downed his vodka.
Having grown up in communist Poland, my father never felt comfortable among aristocrats. For instance, a completely trivial problem gnawed away at the resolve with which had arrived at the Marble Palace: what to do with the vodka glass in hand? Eventually he gathered his wits, placed the glass on the rug under his armchair and came right to the point:
“Count Poniatowski, I have studied your reign and the long and sad history of our country in great detail. I realize that I am a man of no consequence, nevertheless I believe that God has chosen me to come to you with a plan that will help you reclaim Poland.” Satisfied with the way his speech came out, my father wasted no time in producing from his briefcase a thick document, complete with diagrams and bibliography.
Poniatowski accepted the document with a sigh and let its bulk settle onto his lap. The beautiful chicken shifted her perch and clucked. The nurse made no sound at all.
“It’s really quite simple,” my father continued. “All you have to do is go back seven years, to May 3, 1791, to the day you made your triumphant speech in front of the Assembly of Noblemen.”
“That seems like a lifetime ago,” Poniatowksi replied sadly. “I can’t even remember what I said last week, let alone the supposedly triumphant speech I made seven years ago.”
My father gets very impatient with people who refuse to understand the thing he’s trying to explain to them. But he mastered his irritation and continued.
“You made a speech to the assembly upon signing into law the new constitution. And for six glorious months, before the new government was overturned by a royal decree sent from Russia, you were able to unite the fiercely independent Polish nobility for the first time in the nation’s history.”
“Yes, I do remember those bickering idiots, the ‘Polish nobility.’ What a nuisance it was to be their king,” Poniatowski sniffed, stroking the elegant feathers of his hen.
“If I may be so bold, Your Majesty,” said my father, the vodka loosening his tongue, “it was the first time in your twenty-seven year reign that you had power independent of the Russian Crown. Now, all you have to do is go back with me to the precise hour of your speech (he had made an additional pelastric suit for Poniatowski), right after you received the standing ovation from the members of the Assembly, and, instead of going home to tend to your art collection, you will come with me to see your nephew, Prince Adam Czartoryski. You will lay your crown at the feet of Prince Adam—a born leader and warrior, if you’ll forgive my boldness once again—who will then lead the Polish army to victory in 1792, and, like Garibaldi in Italy (but how could you know of Garibaldi, forgive me once again), would have united the Polish states. A unified Poland would have been able to rebuff imperialistic designs of Empress Catherine and her devious ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia. A united, independent Poland would have grown and prospered at the same rate as every other country in Europe, so that by the time the German Panzers came rolling across the border in 1939 (for the Germans will come back, they always come back), instead of the sad spectacle of the Polish cavalry (horses fighting against tanks!), Hitler would have encountered a modern, fully-equipped Polish army bound in steel! And while Poland held the Germans in check on the eastern front, the French would have had time to mount their offensive (900 division, 1500 tanks, 1400 planes) and attack Germany’s western flank, thereby stopping their military machine in its tracks, and ending World War II before it even began.”
My father concluded his speech with a short bow and wiped his brow on his sleeve, panting softly. He retrieved the glass from under his chair and tipped the last drop of vodka into his parched throat.
Poniatowski smiled and nodded. He was a good listener, but of course, most of what my father said to him made no sense at all. Except for one thing. “I only accepted the throne of Poland because I thought that Catherine would marry me if I, too, were a monarch. All of Europe thought the same.”
“You were her puppet!” My father could not control himself any longer. “All of Europe knew that. But everything changed after your speech. That was the moment you showed your true self, your brilliance, Your Majesty. You could have done great things for your country had you simply done as I have just described.”
“Kings are the slaves of history,” Poniatowski murmured sadly and reached up to stroke his chicken. She dipped her white plumed head under his caresses and shook out her tail. A single milk white feather flew up, caught a draft, and landed on my father’s knee. He picked it up and tucked it into the breast pocket of his sport coat.
Poniatowski wiped a tear that had escaped from his rheumy old man’s eyes and rearranged the folds of his velvet robe. “You are wrong about me. I never had power other than the power Catherine gave me. I was not born to do great things. An excellent education enabled me to conceal my mental and physical defects. I have sufficient wit to take part in any conversation, but not enough to converse long and in detail on any subject. I have a natural penchant for the arts. My indolence, however, prevents me from going as far as I should like to go, either in the arts or in the sciences. I work overmuch, or not at all. I can see the faults of any plan, but am very much in need of good counsel in order to carry out any plans of my own. In short, I would have made Catherine a good husband. Why do you think she stopped loving me?”
The vodka buzz had worn off and suddenly my father felt incredibly sober, cold and tired. Though not an intuitive person, he now saw Poniatowski more clearly and realized that there had been a flaw in his approach. The former King of Poland was not ruled by his mind, but by his broken heart.
“I understand,” my father said evenly, as if trying to calm a child who has broken a favorite toy. “I too was once married to a Russian woman. Though she wasn’t a Tsarina, she carried herself as one. I remember the day I came home from work to find the apartment completely empty. She had taken everything, my furniture, my daughter, even the cooking pots.”
My father looked up to find Poniatowski nodding sympathetically. “Catherine also took our daughter away from me. A child for a throne. I never saw her again.” A second tear slid down Poniatowski’s withered cheek. “She did not live past her second birthday. Is your daughter alive?”
“She’s alive, Thank God (Dziekuje Bogu),”my father put his hands together and glanced Heavenward. “I should have gone after them, but something stopped me. I should have at least tried to take my daughter, but times where different then. Divorce courts almost always granted custody to the mother. I also believe that the child, especially a daughter, should stay with the mother, but I still regret not doing more. It wasn’t until she became an adult that my daughter and I renewed our relationship. In short, I understand how difficult Russian women can be.”
“But Catherine was German,” Poniatowski protested.
“Only until she came to Russia, and then she was more Russian than the Russians,” said my father.
“What does that mean?” Poniatowksi leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, finally interested in what my father was saying.
“Nobody knows. The Russians can’t even decide what it means to be Russian. In any case, I’m sure Catherine loved you. Women only torture the men they love.”
Poniatowski clapped his hands. “Bravo!” The beautiful chicken flapped her wings and settled back down on his shoulder. “You understand everything. I promise to read your proposal, but not until tomorrow morning, after we’ve both had a good night’s sleep. In the meantime, you shall have supper with me.”
Not having any relatives in 18th-century St. Petersburg to stay with, my father gladly accepted the Count’s hospitality. For dinner they would have a simple omelet. Poniatowski told my father how he learned to cook in Paris, during his first trip abroad. Now that he was older and had a sensitive stomach, it gave him great pleasure to eat at home rather than in one of those expensive Petersburg restaurants, which he could no longer afford anyway. My father, who hated to waste money, was glad that he and Poniatowski were able to agree on something beside the curious nature of Russian women.
In the basement kitchen of the Marble Palace, my father sat on a high wooden stool and watched Poniatowski cook. The beautiful chicken walked around the rough wooden table pecking at breadcrumbs.
“Why do you examine each egg over a candle flame before breaking it?” My father was hoping that the question about the eggs would lead to an explanation about the chicken. In lieu of an explanation, my father got a story.
“I used to sneak into the aviary of the Summer Garden in the morning. It was Catherine’s favorite place to have her intimate dinner parties,” Poniatowski began. “I spent many a pleasant evening there in my youth, back when I used to be invited to her parties. The aviary has fallen into disrepair since Paul became Tsar. Now I visit the place for an hour or two each day, to keep the birds company. I pick up an egg every now and then, not wanting them to go to waste.”
What harm was there in stealing eggs from a dead lover, especially when one is poor and hungry, my father wanted to ask. But he kept silent.
“The Summer Garden reminds me of when Catherine was young and I was the love she had not found in her marriage,” Poniatowski continued. “She was beautiful back then, and absolutely fearless. She would sneak into my rooms dressed as a cadet in breeches and boots with shiny silver spurs, wrapped in a fur-lined cloak. In her later years, she grew fat, and pitifully prone to flattery. Her last lover before she died was an insipid boy of twenty-six, can you imagine? I was once such a boy.”
My father nodded. He too was once such a boy.
“I still laugh when I recall the antics—I never really liked sex. Did you know that she was my first lover? I found it degrading the way she used to ride me around the bed like a pony, though I will never forget the feeling of her powerful, slender thighs clenched around my back. I tried to talk to Catherine about my love for her, that it was so pure as to be almost platonic, but she just laughed in my face. She liked to sing during our lovemaking, compose little operettas; dress me up like a doll. All idiocy. I can just imagine what it would have been like for her last Favorite, what the New One thought when a graying mountain of a woman climbed on top and grasped him with her old, womanish hams…but that’s all in the past now.”
My father, who hated to interrupt people in the middle of a story (more than he hated to listen to people talk about intimate matters), cleared his throat and asked, “You were going to tell me about the eggs.”
“I understand,” Poniatowski smiled. “You want to know about my chicken.”
My father began to protest, because he felt it was important to continue in the charade that the chicken simply wasn’t there, or that it wasn’t odd to meet a former monarch living with a pet chicken, but the Count waved him off with another laugh.
“One morning I returned from the Imperial Aviary with a pocket full of fresh eggs. When I tried to crack the first one, it cheeped back at me! It was fertile, and moreover, the chick inside had been just minutes from hatching when I so rudely invaded its shell. So I took the egg, which was largely intact, though cracked, and placed it inside a fur-lined glove. Eventually, pieces of the shell flew out of the glove, and I was able to sustain the newborn chick on mashed flies and droppers full of water. One day a perfect little yellow chick emerged, and now look at her,” Poniatowski grabbed the chicken and kissed her fine feathered neck. “Isn’t she beautiful? She’s a gift, after all my suffering.”
Let me repeat: my father is a scientist. He deals with the physical world, governed by the predictable laws of cause and effect. He has no mental construct for the metaphorical (or metaphysical) significance of a chicken born from a lover’s garden. Or so I thought. Nevertheless, he made no comment about the chicken-and-egg story, simply agreeing with his host that she was indeed a handsome bird.
Poniatowksi and my father finished their meal in companionable silence and wished each other pleasant dreams (“Spokojny sen.”) It really was an unusually warm night in February. There should have been piles of snow along the embankment, but the sleepless citizens of St. Petersburg were strolling about amidst daffodils tricked into premature bloom.
Later that night, there was a terrible storm, one of the hundreds of storms that regularly flooded the city until Brezhnev built a dam in the 1970s. Sometime after midnight the air changed from a caress to a claw. The waiting winter cold rolled in making the Neva thrash in her canals like a sick man upon a pillow. The howling wind and rain and wicked waves stalked thief-like through the empty streets, creeping under doors, through partially-opened windows, breaking up the bridges and sweeping out the foundations like coffins from sodden graveyards.
My father, exhausted from his journey through the centuries, slept through it all, until the wraith-like figure of Count Poniatowski in a nightshirt bent over his bed and inadvertently dripped candle wax on his forehead. “You must help me!” He cried. “It was so warm, I left the window open, and now she is gone. I’ve searched the entire house. She is out there in this storm. Please help me.”
Outside the wind tore at their hair and clothing. Frigid water gushed out of the canals and numbed their feet. People driven from their ground-floor beds ran through the streets, scrambling over each other to get to higher ground. But Poniatowski did not seem to feel the sting of the sleet on his face. His eyes were fixed on a single spot on the embankment, where a beautiful willow swayed in the midst of a broken pile of pleasure boats. There, perched on a bobbing limb, was a luminous white speck, a ghostly flutter of wing. And then a wave came down upon the tree, and the speck was gone.
“Catherine!” Poniatowski wrenched himself from my father’s grip and ran for the tree. My father ran after him, clutching at the hem of his cloak.
In the morning the world had turned to glass. Crystallized leaves fell from the trees onto the newly frozen ground with the plinking sound of a celestial harpsichord. Bodies trapped under the ice and snow would remain there until spring, immobilized like pike in a frozen pond. Survivors of the night stayed indoors with the curtains drawn.
Poniatowski lay inside his Marble Palace like a corpse in a mausoleum. My father had carried him home the night before. He and the nameless, wordless nurse had put him back into his bed. Having weathered several winters in wartime Poland, my father knew that you could survive this kind of cold only if you kept your head. He broke up the Karelian birch armchairs for firewood and gathered together the Count’s fur-lined cloaks, the red one, the black one, and the silver one with the chinchilla lining, wrapped himself and the nurse and the Count, spooning together to conserve body heat. Towards dawn of the following day, death came softly on kitten paws and left behind an elegant corpse.
The weather had grown mild once again. My father handed the cloaks to the nurse and bid her good bye with a short bow. In no time at all he was back in my spare bedroom. When he came down to breakfast the day after he arrived, he looked a little more like his old self. Six months later he asked me to help him with his memoirs.
It was nine o’clock on a perfect July evening of our last session in the Catskills and the sun was just beginning to set behind Slide Mountain. Dragonflies were dancing the mazurka with a flock of swallows as my father and I sipped vodka-spiked lemonade, gently rocking in our aluminum lawn chairs. We hadn’t eaten since lunch and I was starving, but there was still one question I wanted to ask. The fading light obscured my father’s features, so now seemed like a good time.
“Why didn’t you go back?”
My father put his drink down under his chair and shifted in his seat to stretch his bad leg.
“You could have gone back,” I continued, “to an earlier time, when Poniatowski was a bit more lucid. Before he found his chicken, for instance. Maybe he would have listened to you then.”
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” said my father.
I shrugged. Nothing in this story was obvious.
“Cause and effect,” my father continued. “What have I always taught you? Follow the sequence of events to their logical conclusion.”
I shrugged again, not sure if he could see the gesture now that it was full dark.
“If there was no war, the part of Poland in which I was born would not have become a Russian satellite state. I would not have gone to university in Russia, would not have met your crazy mother, and you would not have been born.”
“Oh,” I said, though this is what I had expected my father to say, exactly what a man of science would say in lieu of an apology. It was enough for me. To forestall the sentimental tears that threatened to mess up our beautiful moment, I tried to grasp the concept of my non-being. What I imagined was a vast marble room without furniture, weak northern light, a chill in the air.
My father pulled something out of the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt. It was a feather, extremely white in the dark, moonless night. He leaned forward and handed it to me. “You are my beautiful chicken,” he said, “a gift after all my suffering.”
I ran the feather across my cheek and smiled in the dark. Time heals all wounds.