It’s not so uncommon at holiday time, but —
“…folie à trois,” said Halko. “Three lords a-leaping.”
He was already at the club, relaxed, comfortable, when the others arrived for a restorative drink. He hadn’t gone to the funerals. No one could remember how he first intersected their circle. His membership privileges derived from a reciprocal arrangement with a comparable establishment somewhere else.
They were a rough bunch under their Egyptian cotton wing-collars but Halko unnerved them. They couldn’t figure out his angle and it made them doubt their own game.
His urbanity was authentic despite those bluntly rectangular workman’s hands. He had steel-colored hair like a Prussian officer’s allowed to grow slightly out of regulation.
He didn’t go in for baubles. His watch and wedding ring were good solid pieces. He never wore French cuffs. You had to lean in to catch the scent of his cologne which smelled subtly of pine.
The city duplex and the country estate were sublets. No one knew what he was worth. But he had a live-in European pair to run them and that beat everyone in status.
“…quite beautiful in its way,” Halko said, “flight in reverse. An elegant retort to gravity. The aftermath is less so, of course.” He ordered another round, smiling.
There was a horrible fascination to such a conversation. Who speaks that way? Fuck, the men ended up splattered like cat puke on the city sidewalks. Three days’ running. East side, west side, all around the town. There were hysterical wives and hollow-eyed children whose comforting had somehow to be fit into the calendar of the season.
And here was Halko, making it sound like a French art-house movie.
They mocked him, in private, as an arriviste, but in the tones of men whistling past the graveyard.
He’d arrived with Mariane and she made all the difference.
You know what curiosity does.
In their innocence that first season, the men accepted Halko’s invitation mostly for an opportunity to sport their current wives without tears. It was a crowd that played musical beds and there were always some raw feelings until everyone’d secured a new partner. They had a perennial shortage of neutral venues.
“My helpmeet,” he said, introducing her. “My marron glacé. For your delight.”
His arm was around her waist. They both looked jolly.
She was quite a confection, hair a cascade of mahogany and rosewood, and marzipan skin. She looked wonderful in black. Her body was sleekly muscular, like a fabulous sea lion’s.
Without adornment — with nothing to distract from the creaminess of her throat and her marvelous shoulders — she gave a shocking impression of nakedness. Her English was strangely flavored. Czech, you wondered, or Romanian? His accent was complementary but not quite matching.
She wore flat shoes, though Halko was tall and she wouldn’t have overtopped him. She made most of the other women look ridiculous, their expensive stilettos thrusting hips and breasts in opposite directions. You could see they knew it.
The serving pair set out aperitifs and then Mariane took a seat by the fireplace and picked up her violin.
Seven couples had come to dine, plus the host and hostess.
In intimate gatherings it’s hard to disguise your thoughts. A vanity wife, with her little vanity hobby.
The prélude put them to rights and they were flattened by the after-dinner masterwork. It was like watching the rout of an inferior army.
“Of course it is a somewhat altered experience,” said Halko, “without the other instruments. But it’s Mariane’s favorite piece.”
The coffee and pastries gave them cover. It’s best not to speak when you have a full mouth.
But one woman went up to Mariane and impulsively took her hands. “That was extraordinary,” she said; “you gave me chills.”
“We are so very glad you came,” said Mariane.
“An excellent beginning,” said Halko. He was enjoying, as he always did, the sight of Mariane massaging her hands with lotion.
“Legende winnows the field so nicely,” she said. “But weren’t you surprised there?”
“I had my suspicions,” Halko said.
“One never knows, with couples,” said Mariane, laughing.
Guests received a little gift, a day or so afterwards.
“A token of our regard,” Halko said. “We hope you’ll enjoy it often.”
Mariane gave no public performances. “A collector’s piece, if that’s not too immodest,” Halko said; “we use a rather exceptional little studio in Berlin. It’s a sort of hobby of mine, sharing Mariane’s talents with people I’ve come to know.”
Another year, another small gathering, another morning after. Halko was on his comfortable sofa with Mariane curled up beside him. They were going over the names on their list. The usual little pile of wrapped CDs was waiting to be distributed.
Mariane’s pencil was poised.
“Naughty?” she asked. “Or nice?”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)