Jaguar Sees: The Lacquer Box (http://amzn.to/hUuFdS) by Ann Simon is available at the Amazon Kindle store for Kindles, Windows 7 phones, i-pads and other i-products. The Kindle app is currently free.
Arkady Tabidze waited at the long wooden table in the lacquer box factory in Fedoskino, north of Moscow. The “factory” was a shaky wooden structure holding a few tables and desks, scattered pots of paint and lacquer. It was here that some of the most beautifully painted lacquer boxes in Russia were created, to be sold in souvenir shops and markets all over the country. Twilight struggled in through dirty windows, barely augmenting the single light bulb that hung over the table.
Tabidze was not a top artist for the factory, but he was well-trained and clever with his hands. He had violated strict policy, having made a custom box for an unsanctioned buyer and brought it here on this Sunday evening. A wife, a sick child, a long winter -- he desperately needed to supplement his meager income.
The door swung open, and a man in a black cashmere overcoat strode in. Even his bodyguard, waiting by the doorway, was better dressed than Tabidze.
Tabidze offered the box with a tentative smile. “I hope this meets with your approval.”
The man inspected the central design, flames forming a highly stylized triangle, recognizable only to someone who knew to look for a coded radiation symbol. Embellishments on the box offered other furtive clues.
“It opens smoothly? Show me.”
Tabidze turned the box in his long, deft fingers. “I have made an ingenious catch. You see, you must press just here as you twist, and the secret compartment swings free. You want to hide a little gift in here, perhaps?” Tabidze imagined this man gave his mistress presents worth more than his own monthly salary.
The man’s smile lifted to one side with sarcasm. “Yes, a little gift. You’ve done a good job; it is just as I ordered.” The man pocketed the box and went to the door.
“Any other work you have, I would be happy to execute,” Tabidze offered hopefully.
The man turned and blinked at the word execute. “Yes.” His head ticked toward his bodyguard. “Piotr will take care of your payment.” He exited into the winter haze, all thought of the artist shut from his mind with the shutting of the door behind him.
Tabidze stood up expectantly. He only had a moment to be puzzled when Piotr inserted his hand inside his overcoat and, instead of a billfold, drew out a velvety black pistol, the silencer already in place. Tabidze never registered the soft “shuush” that ended his life.
Claire matched the boarding stub to her seat in the airplane’s cattle car class. By wriggling her computer case back and forth, she carved out a slot in the overhead compartment just big enough to worm it in and then jammed her coat on top. After a year and a half, trips back to Moscow were less adventure and more real life.
She swung into her seat, dropped her purse on the floor and carefully toed it to safety. She smiled politely to the man seated next to her (always a man with his wide shoulders and elbows on both armrests).
“Hello,” his round face and blue eyes could have come from a 1940s Soviet Russia poster, while his jeans and button down shirt proclaimed Western experience. He looked a bit older than she was, certainly not yet forty.
“Your first trip to Russia?” he had a pleasing, back-of-the-mouth Russian accent although his voice was curiously light for a stocky man.
“No, I’ve been home to see my brother get his doctorate degree. My husband and I live in Moscow. You’re Russian?”
“Yes, also from Moscow. I travel to the U.S. for business. We import Russian vodka. You like vodka?”
“Mmm,” Claire’s eyebrows danced. She really did like vodka. “It’s one of the few Russian words I can pronounce properly.”
“You speak Russian?”
“Nimnoga,” Claire held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart to indicate a little bit. “It’s so hard!”
The man pulled a business card out of his wallet. He flipped the side covered in Cyrillic over to the side with the Latin alphabet. Mikhail Shomkin it announced in firm, black lettering. Troika Vodka was printed beneath, and, below that, a charming emblem of three horses pulling a sleigh. The address in the lower left showed his office was near the center of the city, convenient to all the routes that radiated from the central circle that was Moscow. His phone number in the right corner balanced the address. His index finger flicked to his printed name as he pronounced, “Mikhail.” He pressed the card into her hand and pointed to his chest, “Misha.”
“Claire,” she nodded, pointing to herself.
He proudly offered up the picture inside his open wallet, “Wife and baby.”
Claire stared at a pale young woman who held an infant as moon-faced as Misha. She never quite knew what to say about babies. It wasn’t that she didn’t like children; she liked children. Once they reached the age of five or six, they were rational beings with interesting ideas. She occasionally read to little Nora, her neighbor Gina’s six-year-old, or took her to the playground, and they both had a good time. But four-month-old Jake? No, thanks.
Babies drooled, they cried and, worst of all, they didn’t do anything. People fussed over them while, let’s face it, they were incredibly boring. She didn’t get why everyone was so gaga over them. Even her brother Dan and sister-in-law Jenny, now that he had a tenure-track position, had that gleam in their eyes.
“What about you, Claire?” they asked.
“Well, what about me?” she would counter. She could see that they thought her self-centered, but wasn’t that the best reason not to procreate? Self-centered people certainly shouldn’t become mothers. Fortunately, Jack didn’t seem to feel any urgency. When she asked him if he wanted kids, he would say, “Not now. Maybe some day.”
She looked at the creased photo with what she hoped was credible interest. “He’s adorable.”
“A boy,” he stared fondly at the photo, “Nicolai, after my father.” She might not care much for babies, but she appreciated his pride in the tiny, wrapped package on the woman’s lap; she liked his happy smile.
“That’s a good name.” She pointed to the address on the card. “We live further down Tverskaya, near the Belaruskaya train station.”
“You are with the State Department?”
“No,” Claire smiled –- how delightful it would be to have the perks of a diplomatic posting. The idea of access to the Embassy’s grocery store with its sections of peanut butter and identifiable meat was an unattainable dream for mere plebs.
“My husband works for Goes & Company. It's better known as GoCo. They have a contract through the Department of Defense to support Cooperative Threat Reduction. They’re securing all the nuclear weapons throughout the Russian Federation.”
“And we have Americans doing this?”
“Americans and Russians working together to improve the security at the weapons sites of the former Soviet Union: it’s in the interest of both countries to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.” Claire had recited the line so many times, it was like repeating a memorized script. She was always surprised that people weren’t familiar with all the press about the Nuclear Threat Reduction Treaty although, she supposed, the Russian media may not have publicized it as much as the American. What she never mentioned was that America was paying for most of the work, which seemed counterintuitive during a time when Russia was making billions with their oil. However, it wasn’t a point she wanted to bring up as a visitor to a foreign country.
“That is worthwhile work,” her seatmate approved.
“I’m very proud of him.”
“Do you like it in Moscow?”
“There is so much to do,” she asserted enthusiastically, “museums, the ballet, and the metro makes it so easy to get around.”
All that was true; Moscow was a lot of fun. What Claire didn’t mention was that she chaffed at the limited life of a trailing spouse. She didn’t have a work visa and so couldn’t get a job. She was half bored, half fascinated by the endless chain of leisure activities and shopping trips by the women who trailed after husbands with careers that moved them all over the world. They filled their time with sight seeing, needlework, and first class travel to Abu Dhabi. Then they blathered endlessly about how difficult it was to support their husbands. She could never quite adjust to being one of them, however temporarily.
Misha broke into her line of thought. “Which is your favorite, the opera or the ballet?”
“Oh, the ballet. Operas are difficult because of the language, you see –- most are in Italian, and the supertitle translation on the screen is in Russian.”
“But the beautiful music?”
“Well, yes.” This was a lie; she and Jack had found both the voices and the staging uninspired in Russian productions. At the third and final opera they’d tried, the soprano had sung flat. Instead of decrying his favorite art form, however, she shared, “We went to see the Magic Flute last summer, and they had duck quack down from the rafters.”
“Not a real duck. A rubber ducky, or,” since he wouldn’t understand that American cultural reference, “maybe it was plastic. I’m not kidding,” she added in response to his doubtful expression, “and the time before that, we saw a world premier about musical geniuses that were cloned. The singers all came out in diapers over their suits.” She added dryly, “I’m not inclined to try again.”
Misha burst into laughter, “I must admit I saw that one. It was not very well done.”
“With the ballet, we get beautiful symphonic music along with the dance, both of which anyone can understand.”
“Yes, I see. My wife and I like the opera, but we like to go dancing even more. We have not gone out since the baby. She does not like to leave little Nicolai with anyone but her mother, and since her mother lives in Archangel . . .” He shrugged and then frowned as if there was a subtext to his statement, although Claire did not see why staying home should come as a surprise to anyone who had a new baby to take care of.
Misha brightened, “Your husband, he travels much on his work?”
“A fair amount.”
He leaned over her side of the armrest. “Maybe one time when your husband travels, you will want to go out. Not to the opera,” he reassured her, “but to go dancing.” His voice dropped to a persuasive caress, “to have a good time at local clubs, with someone who speaks Russian. We will have fun. You call me, yes?”
“Uh huh,” she answered while she thought, Yeah, right, like I’m really going to call you. Sheesh, what is it with men? I thought we were having a pleasant conversation, and here he was hitting on me the whole time, with a brand new baby in his wallet, too. I’m really disappointed in him and in myself. How is it that I didn’t spot the signals earlier? And now what am I supposed to do with his card? Throw it in his face and scream PIG!? That doesn’t seem quite right.
Instead she reached down, lifted the outer flap of her purse and flipped the small, white rectangle into the pocket. She brushed her hand lovingly along the soft, sensuous leather. This trip home, she had finally found the holy grail, the perfect purse: light brown leather with an adjustable strap that easily crossed her chest, bandolier style. There were inside spaces and a zippered compartment plus two outer pockets so there was room for everything, and everything stayed organized. Just the night before Jenny, had handed her a tin of saddle soap, and she had rubbed the surface until it flowed under her fingers like water.
She retrieved a paperback from its roomy depths and, after combing her hand through her dark, tousled curls, leaned back and opened it. She was relieved that Misha not only took the hint, but wrapped himself in the airline’s blue fleece blanket and fell asleep.
The biography would have been enjoyable if her seat cushion had been better padded. She wriggled around trying to find a comfortable spot, arching her back to avoid a lump and stretching one, long, denim-clad leg into the aisle. The harder she tried to focus, the more her mind darted and drifted. She gave up and exchanged it for the airline magazine in the seat pocket, the glossy cover sticky from too many cross-Atlantic flights.
She was sorry to discover the movie was the one she’d already seen, but she’d kill some time doing the crossword puzzle. She enjoyed the puzzle in the Post every day when she was home, but couldn’t work up interest in the one in “Airline Traveler.” She gave up, groped on the floor for her purse again and pulled out her iPod nano.
She tucked the device in her shirt pocket and plugged the earbuds into the airplane’s jack. For ten minutes she pretended to listen to the bad music but found the tinny sound and overly commonplace melodies nerve-wracking. She yanked the cable free and let it dangle in her lap.
She’d felt like this for months: itchy. She’d looked forward to getting home, certain the trip home would ground her, reassert her sense of self, but once there, she was just as antsy to get back to Moscow.
Why do I feel like I’ve got a dark cloud over my head? I have everything I could want. I’m acting like a spoiled kid who has plenty of amusements to choose from but still isn’t satisfied. What’s going on with me?
She couldn’t identify the problem or its cause, but she knew how to find the solution. She’d put it off, thinking her trip would allow her restiveness to fade into tranquility. Well, it hadn’t. A seat on a plane wasn’t ideal, but, after all, it ensured there wouldn’t be any telephone calls, friends to meet or even bad TV to distract her. It certainly ensured she would sit still in one place.
She would get her solution in a Journey, not a journey like she was having here on the plane, but the kind of Journey she’d practiced since her Native American Culture class in college. Claire smiled to herself thinking about that class, about the young man who’d sat next to her and never noticed she was there. She’d almost had to strip naked and dance on the desktop to catch Jack’s attention. Once she got it, though, oh, my! a fantastic life journey had begun.
This kind of Journey, however, was one in which she would travel mentally, spiritually as a way to gain new perspective on things in her everyday life. She sifted through her thoughts to form her intent, silently clarifying what her request would be.
Slipping the iPod out of her pocket, she plugged in the ear-buds and thumbed through the menu. She pressed the arrow to play “double drums“, closed her eyes and concentrated on the unvarying beat. Within minutes, she was enclosed in it, her visual cortex interpreting the persistent rhythm as ribs of a tunnel. Claire felt herself swim down, down, down the tube formed by the tempo –- Alice’s rabbit hole –- until her brain waves synced with the drum’s steady vibration and put her into deep meditation.