by Asya Graf

Vera the flying circus girl jumped for real. Although once my lover before she was Sasha’s, she meant less to me than the fact of her death. She jumped on a cold night when the stars hung without pulleys and the air whipped around the faces of the city’s buildings like a horse trainer gone mad. In the morning her body was a poppy on the ice, black center and red petals unfurled.

I take the phone call early that morning, then wait for Sasha. If I wake him he will confirm tragedy. If he knows later and gently, I will believe that the ice on the river was only the mesh of the net. Close to noon I throw open the curtains and Sasha rolls over and grins at me from a bed where living people sleep and make love.

”Come here,” he mumbles into the pillow and peers at me with lust and dumb satiety. I smell of freezing flesh and cannot move from the window where the sunlight is.

”Come here, I said. What’s gotten into you this morning?”

”Vera jumped off the bridge and died.”

Corpses do not mince words; they have neither skill nor time.

There is a growing corner of moisture under the wallpaper, under the ceiling. He considers me from under a weight he shakes off in one impatient motion with his covers.

”Pity the circus madwoman couldn’t really fly. Come here, there’s nothing to be done now.”

His body is lean and pale and heaving like the warm flank of a hound. Corpses do not resist.

He pulls me down on the sheets that hold his warmth. His skin smells of vinegar. My back is to him, his breath hot and sleepy on my neck. He slides his hand under my shirt and presses his palm to my belly, steady boy, a gesture circus trainers use on the flanks of their panicked horses. His touch transforms my sadness, heavy and cold on my skin that morning, into a desperate, famished lust that has no bottom and no joy and is all the more intense for its joyless, guilty pleasure.

”Please, Sasha, not now. We need to make arrangements.”

I am dizzy with the deafness of my words. He pulls away and sizes me up. His eyes narrow and grow clear before he strikes me hard across the face and my ears ring as he whispers in my ear, “Not another word out of you about that whore.”

Afterwards I go down to bargain for firewood. I return to find Sasha in the hallway, his lanky body collapsed on the stool that looks too fragile to hold his weight, a clown’s prop. He stares blankly at the phone as though it were a bomb or an oracle. His face is in dark profile against the open bedroom door and the cold slate light of February casts his figure in a cinematic, flat luminescence. Only then do I notice his shoulders shaking.

Asya Graf received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. She has previously published in Comparative Literature and Paroles gelees on Elizabeth Bishop, Osip Mandelstam and others.