Abshalom, the tavern-keeper, gathered some change in his hands and kept his eyes off the pair of rowdy men who had just begun seizing each other by the collar. The Good Lord had sent a particularly dreadful late August thunderstorm over the Pale, just over the Russian border. I had been travelling through on business as a district lawyer from a province neighboring Moscow and stopped in for the night, sitting carefully by myself with the typical vodka and steaming borscht.
           "Good sir, remove your hands," one of the men, apparently a Russian officer, said to his companion, still retaining a tone of composure appropriate for his rank. Their table shook, the decks of cards, coins, and the officer's hat rattling as they struggled. The Jews from the neighboring shtetl sat in a dimly lit corner away from them, hardly noticing, resting their accordions and cimbaloms, muttering in Yiddish with quiet smiles.
           "Shall we call for our pistols then, dear sir?"
           "Gentlemen, I beg your mercy," an aging priest said after approaching them, catching my attention, the specks of gray in his swaying grizzly black beard flickering in the dim lamp light.
           "You have offended the holy father," the officer said.
           "The likes of a priest in a Jew's tavernwhat form of theater is this, tell me. Grounds for a defrocking, surely. What manner of clergy are you, Father?"
           "By the grace of God, a simple priest."
           "Why have you come to torment us in this sort of place, holy father?" the officer said and gave the priest a hearty smirk, slowly straightening to his full height.
           "You can hear the winds outside."
           "This is a regular tavern," the second man said, still catching his breath from the scuffle.
           "Nothing other than a matter of necessity. Christ our God ate grains on the Sabbath when He hungered," he said, making the sign of the cross over himself.  "The Monastery of the Lord's Meeting is quite a ways. We were delayed yesterday, you understand."
           "Will you please us to oversee our duel?" the officer said and went on smiling.
           "There will be no pistols, gentleman. For God's sake, that's a relic of a barbaric time."
           Abshalom sat with his companions for a while, laughing with them, his large hands folded over his vest. His dark eyes lacked focus behind the fine spectacles he wore as if his small irises were taking in the entire candle-lit room at once. The two men and the priest discussed the details of the debt that the officer refused to discharge to his companion by means of gambling.
           I thought to myself, listened to the harsh rain and fits of thunder outside, the storm affording me a sense of calm, as if sitting in place with a little vodka was all our God might expect of a man when He set the elements at odds with his plans.
           "You are learned gentlemen. I hardly have to repeat the Scripture to you'the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.' A man has a right to take away as well," the priest said, trying to introduce his verdict in what would be a more lengthy process of winning the wronged man around to the idea. Abshalom had gone on speaking with more focus, more unreservedly, apparently satisfied with the priest's volunteer to mediate. A group of peasants, presumably the workers of some nearby estate, sat at their ale-stained table and watched the proceedings with amused interest.
           The tavern held a kind of suspension of the natural order for men in our empire, a place where, in the manner of a church of God, representatives of every social rank shuffled in at sunset and often came face to face in brandy-fed engagements. I went on thinking for a while over the question of what this natural order in fact was, at least in the manner God willed it on this earth, until a hard knock came at the front door that interrupted the argument of the two men and the general soft laughing murmur of the Jews in the corner.
           "Abshalom is requested. Have mercy, good landlord," a man's voice cried out with a strange, lilting accent.
           Abshalom sat up and scuffled over, investigating through the sliding window.
           "What interests you gypsies?"
           "Shelter, sir. We pledge entertainment for your guests, a compensation we say, if you will do us the mercy."
           Abshalom waved it away with his thick hand and let them in, saying nothing else, and returned to his table after locking up again.
           "Particularly vile storm," the officer said, the two of them now sitting pacified, watching the train of a dozen or so gypsies thronging in with their instruments and piebald garments. A middle-aged man among them strummed a wet guitar as he walked and quickly looked over the large open dining room, his rain-heavy loose purple and white sleeves jiggling. The two young somber-faced deacons that were traveling with the priest dusted the crumbs of table bread off their musty sable cassocks as they stood up from their table and retired upstairs without a word.
           The band of gypsies settled indiscriminately, some finding a table to sit at, some leaning against walls, still laughing from an ongoing conversation, wiping their instruments off with the bright linen of their loose garments. The women among them, about four or five, stuck close together, the gold earrings, bracelets, and necklaces clanging gently and shimmering sporadically in the lamp light. They smiled and moved gracefully, their dark eyes unwilling to settle on anything around. A few children, their travel fatigue evident from their gentle, expressionless faces, shuffled through the room following, a tambourine or two carried among them.
           "We might as well enjoywhat choice do we have? Some more liquor is requested here. We request graciously," the indebted man shouted and knocked the table with his fist, not quite ready for the mirth with which the gypsies imbued the drab tavern room.
           "I have always been fond of their choruses, ever since I was a child. My father took me to the taverns when I was young," the officer said, unfazed by the bright spectacle yet enjoying himself.
           "Will you have a drink with us, Father? 'Wine to gladden the heart of man,' as the vesperal psalm says. The Lord wants us to enjoy ourselves, doesn't he?"
           "Within reason."
           "It's not a Friday. Don't worry, my reverend," the man said.
           Still scattered around the large dining room, the gypsy men glanced at one another, struggled with their first melody, their instruments rudely awakened, out of tune, and gathered closer together so as to listen more closely, stroking their beards, the loose sleeves of their yellow and red shirt flapping as they went on playing. Abshalom got up, showing no reaction still, and went behind the bar to fill trays full of vodka and brandy. He said a few words to the young blonde Polish maidservant who was helping in the kitchen. She untied her apron, threw it on the counter, and went off upstairs before bringing back a shaggy dark-haired boy who had been sleeping, his hair slightly curled, and was now being set to work with helping serve the guests.
           The group of women went on whispering among themselves across the room from their men, adjusted their gold-embroidered white shawls. They all seemed to share the dark, wavy hair that shadowed the chiseled features of their faces in the soft light. One of the younger onesshe must have been no more than twenty-onenoticed me as they talked, looked right at me with hardly a sense of shyness at all, evidently aware of her beauty, her relaxed low smile not changing the whole time as she glanced at me. Her dark amber eyes gripped me with their soft boldness from across the room in that instant. Her dress and light-sparkling shawl swayed as she moved lightly, her wrists held delicately near her shoulders, palms facing outward. She took in the rhythm of the drum and tambourines and would raise her bare left shoulder, the one uncovered by her shawl, to her china dearly captivating gesture, its effect on me only heightened by how effortless and second-nature it seemed to be for her. I watched her elegant, carefree footsteps as I finished the last of my vodka.
           The tavern room grew more alive, more timeless as the band played on, the melancholy violin screeching with full longing. The young gypsy I kept my eye on had made her way around the room, her role in the spectacle seemingly being to invite the sitting men into a more appropriate mirthful mood, prompting even a few of them with hard drunk smiles to take her almost brutishly into their strong arms for dancing, at which she laughed lightly before indulging them briefly and dancing away, singing along with the harmonies of the chorus and never speaking a word to anyone.
           "Hello, noble," she said to me some time after I had begun falling into a vodka-heavy lethargy and taken my eyes off of her, my thoughts dancing aimlessly against the music. I looked up at her, not able to respond for a moment.
           "I am no noble," I said, amused. "I'm merely a district lawyer."
           "Oh, a wise one, are you?" she said, resting her thin arms on my shoulder.
           "Wise enough to not enjoy some dancing? Look at you sitting here."
           "I have never been a great dancer."
           "Shame, shame," she said with a soft humor.
           "What do you wish from me?" I said, returning her humor, looking up at her over my shoulder.
           "Oh, nothing."
           "The great pleasure of conversation is all I have to offer you."
           "That might be enough for me. You have kind eyes. Who knows what a gypsy woman can find in the eyes of a stranger."
           I was unsure how to answer and looked away out at Abshalom as he scribbled receipts onto his dried up yellow parchment.
           "I shouldn't let you go without having you dance at least a little. I am good for nothing else on this earth, just the music."
           "What good is any man on this earth?"
           She smiled at my question, said nothing, and dashed away to her men, the young ones in particular, who had started drinking brandy and laughing among themselves while the older men kept on playing. She tried to wrestle a small guitar from one of them, who instantly dropped his smile and looked at her with annoyance, gripping the guitar by its neck and twirling his long dark mustache with his other hand. Their words were silent from across the room as she looked up at him with a hand on her hip, but he had somehow relented after a brief exchange and handed over the guitar to her, waving her off and taking another swill of the brandy from his glass. She sauntered back over to me, pulled at my coat, and told me to follow her.


"Fear no one's eyes here," she said after I shut the door to my room upstairs.
           "I am not afraid of any drunk man's or Jew's opinion."
           "My girls will laugh at you surely."
           I chuckled. She leaned up against the window, looked out at the wet darkness outside and strummed a few chords softly. The rain beat heavily against the pane. I stood motionless.
           "Where did you say you were from, noble?"
           "Just call me Sasha."
           "Where do you hail from, Sasha?"
           "Outside of Moscow, a day's travel away, a small town."
           "Do you know Moscow well?"
           "You want me to take you there?"
           "Would you?"
           "Tell me your name first."
           "It's Vadoma."
           I started a light fire in the stove as she played, crooning quietly to herself. Her voice, even in hushed tones, was gorgeous, carrying all the lightness of a night-lark with it, though she sang quite lower than at the register of soprano, sang with an almost bass-heavy richness. I stood up from crouching over the fire once it had started and took off my coat near the door, unbuttoned the top button of my shirt.
           "Believer?" she asked, hardly looking at me; the faded silver crucifix hanging around my neck had glinted here and there as I lit the table lamp.
           "It won't grieve God if I have you dance, will it?"
           "I'm not a priest. Not a monk either."
           "I'll ask God to forgive you anyways," she said, her shining eyes still jovial and serene. "Here, sit down."
           I complied and sat down on the tall bed. She handed me the guitar, showed me how to press down a few chords, her small fingers bending my own as she wanted them, and made sure I understood the rhythm and moved my wrist accordingly.
           "I haven’t played since university,” I told her.
           "This is easy, easy, Sasha. There you go. Just like that."
           She stood up and floated a few steps away from me, held up her palms frailly over her shoulders, her fingers touching one another haphazardly, almost as if she were about to make the jagged shape of a priestly benediction with them.
           "You have to just take in the music, swallow it, like you do with vodka. I know you like vodka," she insisted, her eyes barely open, dancing for no one but herself.
           She was a small creature, just over five feet, but the elegance of her body, from the curve in her spine to the delicate movements of her thin arms, gave her a sense of stature and deep allure. Her eyes, round and full like a doll's, took in shadow well, momentarily imparted a sense of depth about her, betraying a soul that felt and loved deeply.
           "Here, come, Sasha," she said, taking my hands and struggling a little to lift me up.
           "You intend to rob me of my dignity, don't you?" I said with a sense of jest, looking for her eyes.
           "I only give. We are both strangers tonight. Taking from you is out of the question."
           "Spare taking my soul," I said and let out a laugh.
           "I like your soul."
           "I like yours, too."
           "Can I keep it with me?"
           She looked up at me with a young smile, which held me in such pleasure, though I sensed it was a charm she had realized she had and had mastered long ago. I was perhaps far from the only man whom she had silenced until his entire being rattled with adoration.
           "It's not mine to give away. The Good Lord Himself entrusted me with it."
           "I'll take good care of it, I promise," she said, throwing her arms around my neck, swaying to the silent music that must echo continually in her soft-breathing heart. I brought my lips down to her neck, kissed her softly. She leaned her head back, looking off elsewhere, still swaying with me, before breaking off and taking up the guitar again from off the bed.
           "You're a long way from home, aren't you?"
           "Yes," I said, hardly able to think in coherent sentences.
           "Do you have a carriage? Are you going by horse?"
           "I have a horse."
           "I do, too."
           "What's its name?"
           "Chyornochka because he has a coat of darkness. It's easy to lose sight of him in the night. He's very strong, though. My brothers and I share him, but he's mine mostly. I've had him since I was a girl."
           "You have brothers? A lot?"
           "Just enough. They're very good to me, Sasha. My brother Vano is an outright bogatyr now, taller than you are, can you imagine? I used to carry him everywhere."
           "And what about your mother and father?"
           "My mother is with God."
           "Tsarstvo ey Nebesnoe."
           "And your father?"
           "We don't talk about my father, though he has my love."
           She continued to play as we entered a silence. I walked over to her. The lightning lit up the room in two brief flashes that let me see her wild smile, her curls shaking softly, her large amber eyes far from afraid of me. I grabbed her by small of her back and took the guitar out of her hands with my other hand, tossed it on the bed, and, sensing no resistance from her, pulled her into me easily. The guitar and accordion-filled ruckus downstairs seeped in beneath the door, from beneath the floor, an occasional shout and smashing of a glass ringing out here and there.
           "I haven't been to Russia in a while," she said, smiling. "It would be nice to ride on a boat down the Volga. I do like rivers, ever since I almost drowned," she said and laughed, a full beautiful laugh that took hold of my breathing, leaving me with a slight melancholy emptiness in my chest.
           "When was this?"
           "I was a girl, long time ago."
           "You didn't learn to swim?"
           "No, I did. It's just it's very easy to get lost in the water. Rivers are very beautiful, but they a carry a power with themselves too. My father saved me that time, but since then I have loved the water. Is that a strange thing?"
           "In a way, yes."
           "We women are mysterious, aren't we?"
           "I would imagine you would be afraid of the rivers now."
           "No, I am not afraid."
           "What are you afraid of in this life?"
           "I don't know of fear. I have only love."
           I went on kissing her neck, brushed her shawl aside and kissed her shoulder, listened to the changes in her breath. The thunder seemed to make her heart race against me. She turned away from me to look out the window and fell back into me slightly as she watched, not letting go of my arms.
           "What about you, noble Sasha? You speak so little."
           "What do you want me to tell about?"
           "It's a worthy thing to speak little. Are you married?"
           "I am not."
           "So, I have this jurist all to myself?"
           "Evidently so."
           "I wish I could read your fortune for you," she said, inspecting my hands. "I'm no good at it."
           "I'm not a believer in fortune telling anyways."
           "Of course, you are a learned man."
           "All things are as God wills them."
           "Is there much wrong in my wanting to know what God intends to do with you?"
           "I suppose not. I'd rather not know myself," I said and laughed.
           "Don't be so humble, you saint."
           "How should I be?"
           "I want to know what your soul desires, what you really desire while you're on this earth."
           "What should I ask for? I've made a respectable life for myself. People respect me. I work in the courts for them, resolve their disputes. I own some land now. All I could ask for is forgiveness for the way I am."
           "You sinner. You might be making me sad."
           "Something tells me you need more dreaming."
           "You're something of a dream yourself, aren't you?"
           "You say correctly."
           I mustered up the boldness to kiss her. I pressed her closely into me, put my lips gently on hers. She closed her eyes and let it happen, waited for me to do it again.
           "What makes your soul burn?" she asked me. "That's what I want to know. I can tell there's something there."
           "Tonight, I think it's you."
           She laughed lightly, drawing her eyes away from me. I brushed her thick curling hair aside, gazed at her for a moment before scooping her light body up and carrying her off across the room.
           "Isn't this a sin?" she asked as I let her down on the bed, smiling up at me. I ignored the question and unbuttoned my shirt. She put her hands onto my chest, looked at me sincerely.
           "I am afraid of one thing," she said, not losing her subtle, joyous smirk.
           "What is it?"
           "Only one thing."
           "What is it?"
           "That you'll look down on a lowly woman like me."
           "No, no, no."
           "I will not."
           "You are so noble, don't you see it?"
           "You have misunderstood me."
           "Let me misunderstand you then, Sasha."
           The gold from her jewelry glimmered in the lightning now and then beneath me as she ran her small hands through my hair. She fell into my arms like a spirit, knew too well the mystery to a man's desire, the sort of desire he might feel once or twice in his life.
           "Come with me tomorrow," I said.
           "Can I?"
           The music downstairs had lost its frantic rhythms. The men had most likely begun growing tired, keeping up a few songs only for the few revelers who had not fallen asleep. The rain was beautiful against the window, her skin soft and kind against my hands, her quiet laughter irrevocably stirring me. A sense of the beauty of this life rose up in the core of my being, something I had not ever remembered feeling in the contentedness of my daily life, among the courts and my books and house servants who brought my evening tea. The timeless night housed us there. I was at peace with her in my arms, nestled up against me, wide awake, a beautiful soul I couldn't help loving, loyal to her people, loyal to no one, afraid of nothing, afraid of herself for what she was. She resisted not the slightest touch in my arms, which bolstered my raw masculine desire, though, seeing something kind and innocent in her eyes again and again in the flickering light, the careful smile on her, I resisted rushing headlong into the sin, merely finding it enough to hold her against me and have some talk, tell her all the things she wanted to know about my life, my modest childhood, my adventures in the army, the fine architecture in elegant St. Petersburg.
           The slightest light of dawn began filling the darkness out the window with a dull gray. The music and revelry downstairs had at last completely subsided. Vadoma had fallen asleep, still holding onto me. The rain had stopped and for a few minutes the entire earth was silent until the songbirds came alive, praising their Creator. I turned over and fell asleep too.
           The sky rang out in a deep full oceanic blue when I awoke briefly in the late morning. The birds had not stopped, and the reserved August light only slowly dried the soaked window panes. The fire in the stove had gone out. I looked around; Vadoma was gone. I got up and checked my belongings, finding everything intact, and laughed, felt a slight sense of disappointment towards myself for even raising the question. On the bedside table, next to the lamp, a fragile red poppy caught my eye, its crimson hues revealing it must have been freshly picked. It rested on top of a gold bracelet that Vadoma must have left behind with it too. I smiled, though, in my half-asleep state, I still puzzled over the meaning of it. My heart, beating more thickly and slowly in my chest, understood it before I did. I took the poppy into my hand and walked back to the window, looked over the boundless wet green hills of the Pale, listened to the soft plainchant of the songbirds who had all they needed in this life.