The Last Romanov

Trash blew down the street, rustling against the empty pavement, as he stood there enveloped by the darkness. Streetlights overhead stood like frozen sentinels, their light having died long ago. Glass broken on some, others just no longer functioning, they stood there as monuments to a different era.  People once felt safe to walk the streets at night, a time when they felt that artificial light illuminated the darkness, protecting them from what lurked in the shadows. Light can only do so much now. The orange glow of these large lamps would expose and highlight one’s vulnerability in the night, working contradictory to their true purpose, exposing rather than protecting. Their absence was welcomed, their state of disrepair, the veil of which masked his movement.  He wandered down the street, hugging the brick walls of decrepit vacant buildings, keeping close to the alleyways to duck within. The buildings offered cover, they offered a safety from the open street, from the revealing sidewalk.

Stepping over bags of trash, which cascaded out vacant doorways onto the street, he navigated the refuse of the masses, stumbling over heaping piles of bloated black sacks. His steps were deliberate, as he positioned his body, his balance, with each movement. His calculated actions maintained a stealth on the dead street, where only the loose trash showed life. Shadows cast by the moon overhead, beaming down brilliant rays of the lightest blue, coating the world in an ethereal light, became his refuge, and allowed him a greater comfort on his journey. Resting against the husk of a deceased maple tree, in one of these black voids, he found himself staring out across the landscape, and thinking how beautiful all this entropy was, blanketed in the soft moonlight. The dead hay, where once was green grass, was blue in the lunar rays, and the buildings scars were rendered moot in the contrast between light and dark. Realizing he lingered too long, he darted his eyes to and fro, and then moved on, advancing  shadow to shadow.

In the distance he could see the monolith of a building rising into the night sky. Its oxidized copper domes were still intact, and sat upon the granite structure, which rose from the street. He could not help himself, and stepping out into the open street, he took in the grand view of this building, allowing imagination to take him to another time. In the few seconds  standing there, he envisioned the construction of this building, and could see the grand architect, with blueprints in hand and pencil tucked behind his ear, standing where he stood, overseeing the creation of this marvel. He envisaged, this view was chosen so the street ended at this structure, that this building was so important to the community, a road led to it. And then he heard it, off in the distance, a noise like a screech owl, sounding prey in the dark lit woods, on a snowy night.

Frozen in place, he stood there, a sudden rush of fear taken hold of him. Hearing the screech again, he bolted off the road, and found a small hole in the side of a building. Moving debris from the opening, brick and mortar scratched against each other, as he frantically moved the materials away till he could fit in this small space. Fearing what could be inside, living in this recess, he dove in, knowing what was out on the street, producing that sound, was far worse than any animal that could fit in that hole. Cramming himself into that small space, he pulled back some of the brick, and forced his body as far back into the void as he could. As he pulled back the last brick, a screech, louder and far more ominous than the first, rang through the air, and seemed to amplify in his small hovel, ringing loudly through his ears. Watching out through the small opening, he waited for the parade he suspected would come.

Slowly a body walked down the street, with deliberate strides, each one so long, it seemed inhuman. In the moonlight his face was bright white, like a sun bleached skull, and very much like this image, the hair was vacant from his head, not even eyebrows to show. Stopping in the middle of the street, the man craned his neck like a bird, his body still, his legs in a lunge position, only his head and neck moving. He opened his mouth and screeched again. And with focused movements he made his way down the street, till he was out of view. The screeches continued as he walked down the street, and they eerily mixed in with the sound of boot heels which followed close behind.

First one, then two, then uncountable numbers arrived in the street. Their bodies forming one dark mass in the dull light. From that horde, individuals broke off, scouring the alleyways, poking the garbage heaps, swinging spiked sticks at any object that resembled a human figure. He lay there, his breathing even too loud for his liking, and watched as a silhouette sifted through the heaps of garbage directly in front of his hiding place. As the black figure came closer to his refuge, he could see this creature’s club poke the loose brick, which covered the makeshift entrance. He began sweating in nervous anticipation of the horrors that would descend upon him, and his imagination raced with all the torture that flashed like a slide show through his mind . Like a rabbit wanting to run, waiting till the last second, muscles tensed, and ready for flight, knowing full well it wouldn’t matter, he held his breath, even the beating of his heart thumped so loudly, it rang through the air.

A screech cut through the night, and the black figure turned, and pulled his club out of the rubble, knocking the unsecured bricks away, exposing him to the world. The figure ran through the pale light toward the group, while the screech came again, and again, until it was a succession of shrill sounds. And then he heard it, heard the man screaming as he ran away from this armed swarm, pleading for help. Some unsuspecting person, hidden in the shadows like himself, was rooted out, and now being chased like quarry, as if it were all part of some dystopian fox-hunt. The pack followed this poor soul down the street, and the screeches faded off into the distance, as this already dead stranger ran for his life. This fortunate, yet tragic, event was a boon, and crawling out of his hole, entered the street, knowing his path was clear up to his destination.

After a short while he reached the tall marble steps of the building looming in front of him, and began to ascend them, one at a time. With each step he could feel the concave marble worn by weather, use, and time. The black, which swirled through the white stone, seemed alive in the pale light, dancing as he alighted each step. Reaching the top platform, he turned around and looked out upon the dismal world, and saw nothing but buildings jutting up into the dark sky, a jagged world of stalagmites, wasting away in the chaos. A wind pulsed by, whispering across his face, and he felt his cheeks flush against the cool air. Turning, he stared at the prodigious bronze doors. Reliefs cast in the metal contained clusters of grapes and vines, Roman and Greek gods, ancient philosophers and Caesars. He ran his hand across this door, and he felt insignificant, dwarfed by the enormity of this treasure. Tracing his fingers across a relief of Pan playing his flute, he could not help wonder, how many hands had touched this door before his? How many people had entered these doors with a deep yearning for something so far from their own lives? He could not imagine it in better times, because he had not been alive to witness it, instead he could only recollect on what his parents had passed on to him in stories.

Leaning his shoulder against the massive doors, he pressed into them, exerting his body, flexing his muscles, tensing his back, pushing with all his might against years of neglect. Straining against the stubbornness of the hinges, the door began to open, inch by inch, until it crept ajar enough for him to slide though sideways. Entering the building, it was like a massive crypt, a mausoleum built for kings. High vaulted ceilings could be seen as the moonlight streamed through tall stained glass windows, and small eyes, inserted just below the roof lines along the walls. Standing there, slow and deliberate, he panned his vision, and was awestruck by the enormity and beauty of the architecture. Moving one small step at a time, allowing his vision to acclimate to the darker conditions within this building, his feet moved amongst the dust and dirt collected through time. Large cobwebs filled whole spaces, masking corners and whole walls with their white filament. These massive webs hung like large white, wool blankets strung from looms against the wall.

Standing before a wooden railing set atop iron, he found himself on a grand staircase, overlooking the main room. On each side of the landing, upon which he stood, a large set of stairs, formed of black marble, descended into this great room. In the gloom of the night, only rays of blue eked through the windows, illuminating very few details. Carefully he descended each step, making his way to the floor. In that cavernous room, he came to find himself staring across long wooden tables, with oak chairs strewn everywhere in a discordant mess. Some of these chairs were smashed along the floor, pieces missing, laying there like marionettes flopped on the ground, lifeless reminders of what once was. Others were pulled up to tables, left in a row, as if someone had neatly come along, spacing each chair equally one from the other.

Making his way past a shattered chair in the middle of the floor, he walked to the end of a shelf, and ran his hand along the tall piece of wood. He closed his eyes and felt the grain of the quarter-sawn oak under his fingertips, and rubbed his thumb over an imperfection, a small divot, and felt an electric sensation run through his body. His excitement was palpable, and turning down an aisle between two oak monoliths, he found himself staring at nothing, empty space. Even in the dim light he knew he stared at nothing. Frantically he ran his hands along wooden shelves filled with nothing but years of dust. The soft pillowy grime, collected under his fingers like skin schluffing off bones. He ran from stack to stack, and found nothing but the same. In his panic, his disappointment, he ran from aisle to aisle, shelf to shelf, and searched in the emptiness, looking for his reward.

“No,” he yelled.

A single word he uttered, he yelled, echoing off the vaulted ceiling of the empty reading room.

“No,” he whispered.

Slumping down in a chair, he fixed his eyes to the ceiling, examining the cobweb filled chandeliers, and trying in vain to identify the images painted on the ceiling. He did this for quite a while, and with his eyes transfixed on the ceiling, he did not notice the old man enter the room.

His long, thick, grey beard hung low, and ran down his chest, like foamy water churned over rapids as it cascades down a waterfall. His clothes were tattered, and ripped, their life lasting well beyond the intended use. Suddenly a noise alerted him, as the old man shuffled across the room, and spinning in his chair, he fell over the table backwards, landing on the ground like a turtle on its back. As he lay on his back, a face wrinkled with time, and hidden by thick hair hovered over his, and spoke.

“What is it you want?”

He felt a sharp object stick into his side, and saw the metal poker gripped by the old man’s right hand, sharpened to lethal point, jutting into his ribcage. Speechless he just lay there, the force of the object getting stronger and more painful.

“Come. Out with it. There is not much meat left on the bones of this old man, but I will not be eaten. Speak your words, or death will find you quickly.”

Wetting his mouth with what little saliva he had, he finally spoke.

“I’ve come for…books. Books. I’ve come for books.”

“To burn I suspect. Like those heathens that burned so many before, disagreeing with the topic, you will seek to destroy the written language, so none other may share in it. Well as you can see we have none, so off with you, before your heart is pierced.”

“No, not to burn. To read. I’ve come to read.”

“No one can read. Don’t lie to me.”

“My parents. They taught me, long ago. They were Livrelutionists. They read in public, created poetry circles, their intellectualism was subversion, their literature traitorous. They fought against the demise of literature. The state. The state executed them, along with all the others. The public saw fit to accommodate, and so they cowered in their homes, while my parents hung in the street. The state saw fit to let me live. They sent me to reconditioning school, taught me about the image. The digital word. The image and the oral, but the word, literature, they tried to erase that from my mind, but they could not.”

“And you have come here to read?”

“To read.”

The old man took the poker from his chest, and stood back, giving him his hand. Helping him up, he held his hand firmly, and shook it up and down.

“What is this?”

“A handshake. It is what civilized people do when they meet. It was a greeting long ago. And now, in keeping with old customs, we introduce ourselves. My name is Anton Romanov.”

“I am Orwell Bradbury.”

Anton just stood there gripping the man’s hand with his aged and gnarled fingers. And then with a squeeze released it.

“That is a strange name.”

“My parents named me after two revolutionaries in literature. They told me that surnames did not matter anymore, so they gave me one which they felt reflected the times in which I was born.”

“They could not have picked one more appropriate.”

They both sat in wooden chairs facing each other. As Anton sat down, it was as if the creaking of the chair mimicked the sound of his bones, and Orwell wondered if it was really the wood or the ossein that shuddered so.

“What happened to all the books?” Orwell said.

“What happened to the books? That’s a questions that I have asked myself many times. What happened to all the books?” Anton shifted in his chair after saying that and sat in silence staring at a stained-glass window directly behind Orwell.

To be continued……….

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