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at the wrong end of a very long tunnel

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The wind was blowing; though not especially hard, it still felt stinging cold outside. Pyotr Stepanovich found himself wishing he could put on some more layers of clothing, even if that would mean completely suffocating himself. It wasn’t that he was worried about getting sick, as it pretty much never happened to him, but at this moment he simply hated the sensation of chilly air on his skin.

For about half an hour he had been walking alongside Stavrogin, who despite making no objections to it, still didn’t make it easy to keep up with him. Verkhovensky wondered if there truly was a point in a stroll like this for the other man, if it probably made it rather hard to enjoy the view. But, in the end, he realized this didn’t really matter, at least to him. The most important thing was that finally, beside them there wasn’t a single comparably insignificant soul in sight, and the more he thought about it, the more euphoria would come over him - against all his attempts to keep it at bay, and soon he stopped trying to win with it. Which led to anything that would sober him up becoming overall unwelcome.

Then Nikolai Vsevolodovich stopped, and while not too abruptly, it was enough to startle Verkhovensky. For a brief moment Pyotr Stepanovich stood there, trying to regain his composure, before he assumed that Stavrogin most likely wasn’t paying attention to him acting like an idiot anyway and even if, you couldn’t ruin a person’s opinion on you if said person already hadn’t thought too much of you, could you?

At last, he went on to check what could be the reason for all of this. He wondered, if Nikolai Vsevolodovich’s gaze was fixated on something in particular, or if he had previously been searching for a specific place and now found it, but his expression seemed to be unreadable, as usual. Pyotr Stepanovich breathed in, letting the crisp air fill his lungs (truly, damn how it stung) and exhaled shakily, clouds of steam forming against the landscape of Swiss mountains in the early evening. With that came some more lucidity and he welcomed it with somewhat mixed feelings, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time because of how ridiculous he thought he was being right now in the presence of someone who obviously only tolerated him here.

There was no danger of an avalanche in this place, but in his head he could hear something like a distant rumble of masses of snow and rocks coming at him. And the actual quiet of their surroundings made the tricks of his mind even more painful to bear, real stones could as well be tearing into his skin and breaking his bones. Desperately needing the silence itself to be broken, he spoke out.

“Is there something interesting out there, Nikolai Vsevolodovich?”

“Oh? No, nothing that should concern you too much.”

Saying this, Stavrogin didn’t appear to be thrown off by being interrupted in whatever he was pondering there at all; each word could be heard clearly, though there wasn’t a note of effort put into it coming out like this.

Pyotr Stepanovich often envied him this careless grace and as often felt enamored with it. Now, he took it with a grain of fear, sprinkled atop all of this like a fresh snow and thought that if he were to open his mouth again, any words that would come out could only be prepared from this mixture. Once more, no noise could be heard, save for the wind maybe, and he saw himself standing there next to Nikolai Vsevolodovich and it was beautiful to him in a way that meant more than just an appreciation of being a part of the scenery, and at this point he was barely able to stand it. Though, escape wasn’t an option, either. He began toying with the material of his scarf in an absent minded manner while having a mind probably way too present for his liking.

“A lovely view, isn’t it?”

“Yes, you could say that,” said Stavrogin, and turned to face Verkhovensky, who decided that if most likely he was going to look like a fool to the object of his fascination anyway, he might as well do that while maintaining eye contact and exposing himself to the danger of being an open book instead of crumbling under the pressure he felt and additionally being a coward.

Don’t spoil it, don’t spoil it, he kept telling himself. Do not spoil it. Do not-

“Are you well?” he suddenly heard Nikolai Vsevolodovich say, probably preventing him from throwing in some more nonsense into this butchery of a conversation.

“I should hope so.” Verkhovensky answered, following it with a quiet chuckle and pulling the scarf a bit further up his face so that now it almost covered his mouth. “Did something make you think I’m not?”

“Only thought you seem more out of it than you normally are, that’s all.”

“Ah.”

“Is Liza worrying you that much?”

This threw Pyotr Stepanovich out of balance definitively, since up to this moment he had been so absorbed in the picture that consisted only of Stavrogin, himself and the ground they were standing on, that being reminded of Liza, out of all people, broke some sort of a dam inside him, and he started to laugh, hand tugging at the scarf more from an impulse rather than a controlled need to hide the embarrassment.

“Liza! No, it has nothing to do with- Oh never mind that,” he muttered out, all effort to properly modulate his voice long abandoned. “I love you, and all of that, all the rest, is literally nothing.” At that point he has grown very distraught and there was barely any coherency to his words. They fell down like masses of snow, and then the avalanche stopped.

Stavrogin was still looking straight into his eyes, and it still was impossible to tell what he was thinking. Verkhovensky, as if anticipating going blind from it and unsure of where to look for the remains of his dignity, squinted his eyes hard and on impulse raised his hand to rub his forehead, before putting it down in embarrassment soon after that.

“Are you sure you don’t have a headache or something?” Here was Nikolai Vsevolodovich again, with his sweet, unconcerned words of concern, not betraying a hint of whether he did catch on all words that had just been said or not.

“No,” Pyotr Stepanovich almost whispered, breathlessly. “No.” 

Wind picked up, throwing Stavrogin’s hat off his head and leaving his hair a bit ruffled, which in Verkhovensky’s eyes was now adding a certain softness to his image, along with the awkward smile he adorned himself with while putting the hat back on later.

“Maybe the pressure is just affecting you then, I believe it can be common here” he said while turning swiftly on his heel and taking a  step towards the way back. “I think it’s going to be dark soon,” he added after a drawn out pause.

Verkhovensky understood the indication that they should be returning. But he found himself in the mood to sit down and so he did, welcoming the feeling of cold, hard ground as something stabilizing his current state of mind. He decided that maybe there was some comfort in being covered up by blinding white snow, after all.

Closing his eyes, he conjured up a picture of Stavrogin going away and waited to hear the sound of his footsteps and then listen to it fade out. But it did not come, and instead he felt a sharp tug at his arm bringing him back to a standing position.

Nikolai Vsevolodovich didn’t say a word to him when their eyes met again. And after letting go of his hand, he started walking, this time without any waiting.

Which, as soon as the confusion wore off, prompted  Pyotr Stepanovich to sprint after him with a heart already beating rapidly before he had taken off. He wasn’t too careful though and didn’t notice a rock that was in his way, tripping over it just when he almost caught up with Stavrogin, finally earning the smallest reaction to his own existence, in the form of raised eyebrows and the faintest awkward smile that maybe actually did betray being amused.

Verkhovensky got up, excused himself and again ran ahead, more determined to reach a forest fire, rather than a safe haven.


 

In a way, Verkhovensky did reach it in Skvoreshniki, from where he could clearly see the smoke against the sky, even when he wasn’t looking directly at it through the windows of the mansion. Stavrogin was holding him by the hem of his shirt, and the whole room could as well be burning too. It seemed like it was possible for a ship to still be beautiful while it was sinking, if it was engulfed in flames. He almost wanted to laugh at how easily the hope he was losing was returning to him at that reminder.

There weren’t any answers for him in Stavrogin’s eyes and none has been spoken out yet either, which made him understand that everything mostly depended on whatever he will conceive out of it all himself, and of course it will always end up being beautiful.

Nikolai Vsevolodovich let go and as he was withdrawing his hand, Pyotr Stepanovich grabbed it halfway through it, surprised, glad and terrified upon seeing that no negative reaction came. He brushed his lips lightly against the fingers, sudden bad premonition causing him to hold back on this suspicious chance to indulge himself even only through a relatively small show of affection in comparison to how much of it he had. Then he let go.

He kept begging Stavrogin for that “yes”, though. Whenever it may come. But there was only silence, and fire, enough of both to last forever and after some time to add the “yes” to the list of other things that went up in smoke.


 

A lone man strolled through the streets of St. Petersburg. He knew that at the moment it was best for him to stay out of sight, but he also had quite a talent to paint himself in hues necessary to blend in with shadows, light of the streetlamps and spaces in which one shifts into the other. It wasn’t like he was particularly scared of something either, and keeping himself to one place was beginning to suffocate him. Outside, he kind of even hoped he would be passed by one specifically familiar presence so he could follow onto the path of a dream that was now resolved to specks of dust, making it solidify once more. But instead it felt like it was dancing around him or hiding somewhere behind, never coming up close enough to him to become visible.

He picked up the pace, set on moving forward so much, that after a while he made a mental note to himself not to lose the grip on reality and end up walking out of the city with nothing to his name but what he had on himself at the moment. He wondered, if he will still have any claims to the name itself, once he leaves  the place that he, in a way, shares it with. And he didn’t even use it here anymore, having been more or less temporally living under a different one.

He turned back, though without slowing down, as if he made the decision subconsciously, which caused him to stumble, and if the ground had been more slippery he probably would have fallen over too. Upset with this unplanned lack of grace, with a frown on the face, he readjusted his hat and kept on walking. Then, while passing by a window of a store, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in it, which made him freeze, his attention drawn back to the headwear once again. He found himself realizing that he hardly liked the way it looked on him, he mostly tended to prefer a bowler hat rather than a top hat like this one, yet he had been sticking to it since around the time he left T. But then, to think about it, feeling its material touch his head also did create some sort of a discomfort.

The longer he continued to look at himself, the more he was starting to think of his whole attire as somewhat ridiculous. Not in an ugly way though, unfitting might have been a better word to call it. And it was wrapping him up in such a terrible coldness, too. Death might as well have been hugging him. Somehow, it began to feel like the embrace was growing stronger and stronger, like there was something that wouldn’t let him move.

What if it really was Death, what did it want him to understand? This question started out as a joke, but as soon as it formed, it became impossible to chase away. Death was there, looming over him, seeping into his clothes, his coat, his hat. A coat as black as mourning, a hat in the wrong shape that wouldn’t be seen on his own head as often as on somebody else’s. 

Once the realization dawned over him, the first impulse told him to throw the hat to the ground, then the second thoughts stopped him midway through the movement and simply let it slip from his hand.

The wind blew, making it roll away. He went in the opposite direction and kept going, until all traces of cold on him were mercifully gone.

It took him several hours of straying to finally end up back in his current apartment. After closing the door behind him, he immediately took off the coat and threw it on the floor. With a great relief he proceeded to sit down, his back against the door, and then lay down on the coat like on embers he wouldn’t let die; and counted to five, the thought of Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin being there with him throughout it.

Of course the only person to find him there taken over by a fit was his landlady, but it barely mattered.

When regaining his strength while laying, this time on the bed, he came to a conclusion that he needed to leave, instantly, without waiting for the pain and weariness to pass.


 

Pyotr Stepanovich watched the mountains through the window of the train that was taking him to Switzerland. He came there with a thought of finding one specific place briefly crossed his mind, but the closer he was to it, the more he dreaded actually going there and questioned, if whatever he would find there would be worth the bother.

The sun was rising and tired, he welcomed its warm rays reaching his face. That would hardly dry the tears in his eyes, but it was still something, even while so alike to being given a pitiful smile.

Other passengers had enough time to get used to how he was under the pain during the travel, so they definitely wouldn’t care for whatever he was mumbling into his scarf now. He would repeat “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over again, and listen for the sound of rocks rolling down a hill somewhere far away, though nothing would ever come.

 

Four dreams in a row, four dreams in a row, four dreams in a row,
fall down right there. I wanted to fall down right there but I knew
you wouldn’t catch me because you’re dead.          I swallowed crushed ice
pretending it was glass and you’re dead. Ashes to ashes.

You wanted to be cremated so we cremated you and you wanted an adventure
so I ran          and I knew you wouldn’t catch me.
You are a fever I am learning to live with, and everything is happening
at the wrong end of a very long tunnel.

Richard Siken - Straw House, Straw Dog