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Ambiance

photo: Ambiance by Jacques

Katya ran her finger over the round warm ceramic of the coffee mug. She had to admit to herself it was a comfort to have this portion of her life, her life with Nina, finished. Though just as soon, she was horrified. Her friend had died an awful death – sick from cancer, alone except for Katya with whom she split rent, estranged from wealthy parents, divorced, the mother of one selfish daughter who hardly visited. Katya believed herself to be a terrible person for thinking about her own relief.

In a silly moment, Nina had asked Katya to pour a cup of coffee on her grave at least once a week, maybe more, for as long as she was missed, then Katya was to be free of the routine. They drank bottomless coffee at a diner during mornings they worked in the shops on Park Avenue, during the days Nina was well. Nina also asked Katya to burn a letter that she had written out and placed in her jewelry box. This act of the burning seemed a bit more serious than the coffee ritual, and yet both involved performing an act over her friend’s grave. Nina made Katya swear not to look at the letter before the burial.

One day after work, Katya stopped by Nina’s grave. She pulled Nina’s letter from her purse. It was in an envelope, sealed, and written on several sheets of small square pink papers, the stationary she started to use near the end of her life to make out grocery lists and requests for Katya. It read:

Dear Katya,

You have been my sole confessor in these last few years and on you has fallen a great burden and for that, I’m very sorry. Had I allowed myself to entrust my worries and cares to anyone else, I would have. Maybe it was the illness that stirred up fear in me but in my growing physical weakness, I could not always trust others to be as tender with my heart. People are a bit like animals in this sense, especially when there is a sick person among them. But you, dear Katya, have been more than humane.

I am scared of dying, because of bitterness I have inside, bitterness I fear will keep my spirit wandering. I am scared of my sins. I am scared of the reality of the woman I’ve been, the woman I fear my daughter sees and the woman God has punished with disease. Therefore I have left this one task up to you, to burn this list of the things I have held onto in bitterness along with the sins I have committed. Please leave no corner of these papers intact, but burn them wholly over my grave and let the cinder mix with the soil and be my penance, my last confession. I’m not Orthodox, as you know, I have no priest. Please, dear Katya.

Forever yours,

Nina

It rained the morning Katya intended to burn the papers. She was so surprised by the fervor of the note and the length of the list. She sat out beside her grave longer than she had anticipated. Her coffee grew cold. She fed the grave what was left of her drink, but it was too wet to burn the papers. After work that night she sliced vegetables and brought water up to a boil in their lonely apartment. She ate dinner and watched TV and went to bed but felt in the moments before sleep a presence watching from the corner of my room. Was it Nina?

She was able to burn the list of Nina’s sins the next day and prayed that her soul would be released from the burden of the guilt she felt, from her bitterness. And yet she noticed as she burned the paper, the soil was dry as if from drought, even though it had rained through the night. She bought a watering can and from that time on, watered Nina’s grave every day. To no avail. It drank in every drop of water fed to it and produced nothing. It lay barren as the day she was buried. No grass grew. No flowers that were planted there would thrive. Had she missed some opportunity to make things right for Nina that first morning she sat beside her grave, procrastinating until it rained and it was too wet to burn her letter?

Several years later she met Nina’s daughter. The young woman came to the apartment to find out how things had been for her mother during her illness. Katya revealed the mystery of the gravesite. She was careful with her description of the letter.

“I’m sure my mother was upset I never called or came to visit,” said the young woman.

Katya remained silent.

“I will try to water her grave. Maybe it will work for me.”

The grave did not respond to the daughter’s ministrations.

Again, Katya felt the intensity of a presence in the corner of her room that evening.

She decided to write to Nina’s parents and friends and ask them to visit. Upon their arrival, they knelt beside the grave, tending to the soil, but the plot of land rejected their efforts.

Perhaps there was something perfunctory about how they went about things, Katya considered. Perhaps this was the difficulty. She did not know how to change this since likely there were so few who truly loved tending a grave. And sadly, few truly seemed to love Nina. The cause of this seemed to have nothing to do with Nina herself. It was just her fate. Any grave tending would be perfunctory. Even Katya had not been the friend Nina needed.

One night a man knocked on the door. It was New Year’s Eve. Katya was not going out and had not expected anyone. She did not feel the festive spirit.

The man, she noticed, had skin as white and translucent as parchment. His hair was a soft yellow.

“I have come to pay my respects to Nina.”

When Katya told him the plot number, he watched her with his clear blue eyes, a blue she had rarely seen.

She went back to Nina’s grave before heading to the shop a couple of days later. A profusion of lilies grew there from soil as rich as loam.

The only thing Katya could figure in the weeks following, as flowers continued to bloom there, in the space where an unregenerate woman lay, is that someone loved Nina, someone her friend had not remembered during the torturous months of her illness, or there was someone alive whose love, until then, had remained undeclared.

First appeared in Quail Bell Magazine

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