Honorable mention of the English Forum short fiction division.
For the past few days, the parchment at my desk lay empty. I’d only managed one word in the top left corner: Ayaks. That wasn’t to say I hadn’t tried to write, but—well, I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts together. I would eventually.
I inhaled, putting my hands on the arms of the torn maroon chair as I ventured out of my seat. There was no better time to start that letter than the present. But I’d best clean my glasses first. Yes, that was a good point. I wouldn’t get anywhere until my lenses were clear.
Heavy boots clunked up the steps to my right. As a husky man’s head came into view, I saw him remove his fur hat—tangling his ginger curls in the process. He skipped the third stair from the top. That one creaked terribly.
“Papachka?” He stopped at the top of the steps, careful not to step on the rug with his snow-caked boots. His fists clenched around the hat in his hands. “Can we talk?”
I nodded. “Oh, yes.” I shuffled closer to my desk, mumbling, “Yes, yes, I suppose so.” I wrinkled my nose to push my glasses up. Glasses hadn’t been invented back when the Greeks lived, so I considered myself lucky to live in such an advanced time. Although I did prefer the Greeks’ method of politics compared to our twentieth-century one.
Restacking the history books on my desk, I asked, “What did you want to discuss, Alexei?”
“I—” Realizing he’d started too intensely, my son stopped himself. He took a breath. Softer than before, he began again, “Have you heard anything from downstairs?”
I suppose I had. On occasion, my wife would speak louder than normal, and I could hear her from my study on the loft. I needed to have Alexei put a door up for me. He worked with lumber, anyway, so I imagined he could get a better price on the wood. Now wood from an olive tree would be preferable, though I doubted we could import it. But it would be a nice touch to my study, nonetheless.
“Papachka?” Alexei spoke louder than before.
“Oh.” I straightened out the paper on my desk, answering, “Yes, I have.”
My oldest son’s eyes traveled from me to the paper on my desk. He sighed. I had a feeling asking him about the wood for the door wouldn’t go over well now, so I’d have to wait until he was around his wife. Irina always made him more tolerant.
A minute passed before Alexei spoke up again. “Are you coming downstairs?”
I would rather not. My study might have been small, but one couldn’t help but admire the trinkets from my trip to Greece—I’d been nineteen at the time—or the three framed diplomas from Moscow State standing out against the peeling, dark green wallpaper. But above all, anyone would fawn over the dark, oak bookshelves over-filled with texts on history, or culture, or mythology, or war. My dissertation was amongst those books. I was quite proud of it—three hundred and fifty-one pages on the overlap of the mythology and the history of Greece.
But I imagined my wife would be upset if I didn’t go downstairs, so I reluctantly said, “I suppose I probably should, yes.”
“Are you going to change your clothes?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Should I?”
Alexei sighed again. I wondered when he’d gotten into the habit of doing that, but before I could ask, my wife shouted, “Viktor! This house is freezing. Are you ever going to put wood in the fire?”
I seemed to remember her requesting that of me, but I was sure it wasn’t that long ago. There was no need for her to yell. I was somewhat of an Agamemnon with my own Clytemnestra. I chuckled at the thought. Yes, that was a correlation I hadn’t thought of before. But who would be Aegisthus? Would Agamemnon have been sent to get firewood? Well, I suppose he would have had servants to do that.
“Papachka.” I hadn’t noticed that Alexei had walked nearer to me until he put his hand on my arm. “Let’s go downstairs, alright? I’ll get the wood.”
“Ah, that’s good of you.”
I skipped the third step from the top on my way downstairs, but Alexei didn’t this time. The creak bothered my ears. I decided not to mention it, though, since he’d offered to get the wood.
Once downstairs, Alexei left me—putting his hat back on before going out the front door to the woodshed. Bits of melting snow from his boots tracked across the floor to the doorway. I clicked my tongue. That wouldn’t do.
“Taras,” I called for my youngest son. “Would you mind getting a rag? There’s snow in here.”
Before he could answer, my wife came around the corner from the kitchen. Her heeled boots tapped as she went. I winced at the noise.
“Where’s Alexei?” she ordered. “Did you send him to get the wood? Viktor, you haven’t even changed!” She huffed, pushing a stray brown hair back under her black headscarf. “Why can’t people just do as they’re told around here?”
She wore her nice dress despite it being a weekday, but I decided not to ask why. She seemed to be in a fickle mood for some reason. Changing the subject back to the problem at hand, I gestured to the snow on the floor. “Can you have Taras clean this?”
“No!” she snapped. “That doesn’t matter right now—”
“I can clean it, Mamachka!” Taras called from the kitchen. His school shoes tapped across the wood floor as he grabbed a towel.
Groaning, my wife stormed back into the kitchen. I calmed myself with a deep inhale. When I breathed out, a little puff came from my mouth. I guess the house really was cold. I wondered if the Greek soldiers in the battle of Plataea had similar moments—standing in the early morning chill, watching their breaths as they waited for the Persians to come near enough to ambush. I grinned at the thought.
I wandered to the living room couch. It had always been stationed in front of the fireplace, but two years ago, Nadia had made me replace the blue plaid one we’d had since the boys were young. I remembered reading them stories from Greek mythology at that couch until Ayaks broke the bottom pretending to be Achilles chasing Hector. I hadn’t minded the plywood stationed under the old cushions, but my wife got tired of it eventually. The new brown couch just wasn’t the same. I didn’t like the material—it poked my skin. Nonetheless, I took a seat at the corner of the couch.
I didn’t notice Alexei’s return until he dropped a pile of wood in front of the fireplace and knelt. He tore his snowy gloves off, rubbing his red fingers for warmth. I thought about offering to help, but he seemed to handle it well on his own.
My eyes drifted to the pictures above the fireplace. Drawn portraits of my parents in their later years sat next to each other. On the other side of the mantel was a framed picture of Nadia’s mother in her usual pearl necklace and high collar dress. In between Nadia’s side and mine were a few photographs of our family throughout the years. The most recent photo, taken this past Christmas, sat in the center.
“Alexei, pass me that photo, would you?”
My oldest son dusted his hands, then glanced at the mantel. His lips turned down. “The family one?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
He stood, his newly snow-crusted boots clomping on the floor. Bits of snow fell on the carpet. I grimaced.
Holding the frame, Alexei knitted his brows. He scanned it for a few seconds before Nadia shouted for him down the hall. “Coming!” he replied, then handed me the picture and left.
I loved that photograph. In it, Nadia and I sat on chairs in front of the Christmas tree, Taras in his strapping school vest on the floor in front of us. Behind Nadia stood Alexei and his wife, Irina, who held their five year old daughter. She had Nadia’s brown hair, but it was curly like her own mother’s. Ayaks stood behind me in uniform. He held his hat under his arm, showing his short ginger hair and freckle-splotched face. He was nineteen—same age as I was when I went to Greece for the first time. The corner of the photo read “Christmas 1940” in Taras’s stringy cursive.
“Um, Papachka?” Taras tapped my shoulder. I had no idea how he’d gotten there so quietly. He would have made an excellent spy in the Trojan War, if I were ever to write my own spin on it. But that was a dream from my youth yet to be fulfilled. Perhaps I could write it after I had retired.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Yes?”
“Mamachka said you should change out of your slippers.”
How silly of me! I’d forgotten I was still wearing them. Sitting up from the couch, I replied, “Yes, I suppose I probably should. I suppose you’re right.” I set the frame neatly back on the mantle. Gesturing to the photo, I boasted, “You know, Ayaks from mythology was a great warrior.”
Taras fidgeted with the buttons on his white sleeves. “Yeah, I remember you telling us that.”
“It’s actually quite fascinating, you see. He was apparently a primarily defensive fighter.”
“Ovid’s Metamorphoses described him as ‘unconquered, conquered by his own sorrow.’” I tapped the mantle a couple times. “That’s because he was virtually undefeatable by others. Except Odysseus. Odysseus—”
“Viktor!” Nadia shouted. I wrinkled my nose at the loudness. “Go upstairs and change,” she ordered. “You’re not going out of this house in your robe.”
I started to wonder if my Clytemnestra analogy was plausible. Nonetheless, I shrugged and made my way back upstairs. I skipped the third step from the top.
Once in my study, I realized that I wasn’t anywhere near my closet—which was downstairs past the kitchen. Nadia had called me from there. How odd. I was sure I had something I’d come up here for.
Ah, yes. My letter. I needed to finish my note to Ayaks and send it out. It would take a while to reach Germany from here. I was sure he was waiting to hear from me. Pulling out the rickety chair at my desk, I took a seat and lifted my pen.
Where should I begin? I suppose I should remind him about the photo from Christmas. Tell him I’d been thinking about him.
No, that wouldn’t do. Ayaks would want to hear something new. I could tell him about Taras—he was probably doing well in school. Ah, but hadn’t he failed his algebra test the other day? That was unlike him. Perhaps it was best not to talk about Taras. Nadia had also been terribly nagging lately, so I doubted my son would want to hear about that. Alexei and Irina had visited more often than usual. I could write about that.
I had just managed to write two sentences when the third stair from the top creaked. I glanced back. Irina stood at the top of the stairs, her daughter on her hip. My daughter-in-law pursed her lips. “What are you doing?” she asked, her tone much gentler than Nadia’s. “Aren’t you coming downstairs?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, I suppose I ought to, hadn’t I?” I set the pen down. “Do you think Nadia would mind too terribly if I finish this letter to Ayaks? I’d like to try to mail it so it reaches him before the end of the month.”
“But how would he read it?” Irina’s daughter asked. “Dead people can’t read—”
“Shh!” Irina interrupted, putting her finger over her daughter’s mouth. Distressed, she turned to me and said, “Please, just…come downstairs when you’re able. We have to leave for the funeral soon.” With that, she hurried down the stairs. The third stair from the top creaked as she went.