ROMANCE WITH SARDINES • by Robert D. Beech

She walks quickly down the aisle of the train, looking for an open compartment. Her heavy fur coat marks her as out of place in the second-class wagon. Once, she would have travelled in the first class section with the family. Now, she is just hoping to find a seat. Clutching the large double-handled bag that holds all of her worldly possessions, she makes her way along the aisle. She opens a compartment and looks in to find that it is empty except for a man sleeping on one of the two wooden benches. The compartment smells of stale tobacco and sweat, but it is the only one with an open seat. She slides onto the open bench and places her bag beside her. Outside the window she sees snow falling onto the platform and the sign proclaiming Nikolayevsky station, named after Czar Nicolas I. She wonders, now that his great-grandson, Nicolas II, is dead, how much longer the sign will stay up.

The man on the opposite seat is wrapped in a heavy wool coat and using a newspaper as a pillow. As the train pulls away from the station, he sits up, rubs his eyes blearily and stares at her. He has perhaps three days of beard stubble and his eyes look sunken. She imagines that she looks little better. Three days of travel from Yekaterinburg to Moscow have done nothing to improve her looks. By the time she gets to Vilnius, she will look worse, but at least she will be free, or as free as anyone can be these days.

Privet,” [hello] she says.

Privet,” he says, after a pause.

They sit uncomfortably, staring silently at each other in the small compartment. She notices that he has two rings on the ring finger of his right hand. Does he have two wives? she wonders.

He notices the direction of her gaze and laughs, as if reading her thoughts.

Mama, Zhena,” [mother, wife] he says, touching each ring in turn. A wistful expression comes over his face. “Umershiy,” [dead] he adds.

Mne zhal,” [I’m sorry] she says, wondering at the stories behind these few words.

His Russian is harsh, heavily accented, clearly not a language he is comfortable speaking. She wonders where he comes from and how he ended up on this train. The Class U Russian Express goes up to 90 km/hour, the fastest train in the world. So fast, she thinks. She hopes it is fast enough to outrun the Bolsheviks.

She looks at her remaining provisions for this trip. There is a half loaf of dark brown bread, three rather wilted looking cucumbers, and six hard-boiled eggs. There is also a tin of sardines, but the key has broken off the tin and she has no way to open it.

She looks speculatively at her fellow passenger. There is a duffle bag on the rack above his head, but she has no way to guess its contents. “I don’t suppose you have a can opener in your bag?” she asks. He doesn’t answer. Perhaps he does not understand the question.

She takes the tin of sardines out of her bag and holds it out to show where the key has broken off. He nods and holds out his hand. Hesitantly, she hands him the tin.

He takes a large folding knife out of his pants pocket. Using the tip of the knife, he peels back the lid. When it is open, he hands it back to her.

Spasibo,” she says, gratefully.

She takes the bread out of her bag, breaks off a piece, places one of the sardines on top and hands it to him.

Spasibo,” he says, smiling.

The rich oily smell of the fish fills the compartment. “I used to eat sardines like this with my grandmother. The tastes are perfect together, the salty fish, the brown bread, fresh from the oven, radishes, pickles, and chilled vodka in tiny silver cups.”

“Vodka?” he repeats, uncertainly, groping for the only word he recognizes in the torrent of rapidly spoken Russian.

She shrugs.

He reaches into his duffle bag and pulls out a bottle of cheap vodka.

Ideal’nyy,” [Perfect] she says. She reaches into her bag and carefully unwraps a delicate gold-rimmed teacup and holds it out for him to pour.

He laughs and fills the exquisite teacup with the cheap vodka.

Ty, Printsessa?” he asks.

Ya, ne printsessa,” [not a princess], she says. Somberly, she adds, “They shot them all.”

Umershiy,” she says, recalling the screams of the Czar and the children.

He nods, slowly. “Mne zhal.”

They share the bread and sardines in silence, licking the rich fragrant oil from their fingers, and washing it down with vodka. The vodka burns her mouth, but it warms her belly pleasantly.

As she hands him the last piece, he takes her hand and kisses the tip of her fingers.

Printsessa,” he says.

Ne printsessa,” she says, pulling back her hand. “Umershiy.”

She sits, watching the Russian countryside roll by outside the window. After a time she drifts into sleep.

***

There is a knock on the door. Two men in grey trench coats shine flashlights into the compartment.

“We are looking for a girl, a young aristocrat, traveling alone, have you seen her?”

She looks across the bench at him, wondering what he will say.

He sits up, reaches across the tiny space between them and pats her knee.

“No girl, zhena,” he says.

The men in the trench coats stare at them for a moment, taking in the unshaven man and the woman in the fur coat. The smell of sardines and vodka lingers in the air.

Zhena?” one of them asks.

Da, zhena,” she says, taking his hand.

After a moment, the men leave and continue searching down the row of compartments.

Still holding her hand in his, he turns to look at her. “Zhena?” he asks.

Da, zhena,” she says and leans up against him in the dark.


Robert D. Beech is a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine. He has published stories in 365 Tomorrows, Potato Soup Journal, StarShipSofa and Every Day Fiction.


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