Kirill Finkelshteyn
In a wrong body. The secret life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+

FINAL YEARS (1903-1906) 

                                                            .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

  

    August 5, 1903

   I've become a lawfully wedded husband once again. This time, we were even married in an Orthodox ceremony at a church on the West Side. In attendance on my side were Baron S., who gave us a doll the size of a five-year-old from his collection; Prince Y.; secretaries from the Belgian and German consulates; colleagues from the law office and the Russian consulate; Charlie; and several friends from the Hussars and the athletic club.

    A month before the wedding, Anna was baptized as Orthodox, but her numerous relatives:  parents, sister with her husband, brother, some old-fashioned uncles and aunts with their offspring were Jews. Father John said that according to the Orthodox Church canons the unbaptized can not participate in the wedding ceremony, but they are welcome to watch.

In truth, most of Anna’s relatives did not come to the church, because Jews are generally ordered to bypass the Christian temples. However, her mother and sister with husband dared to come. They had their reasons, because just before the wedding, I gave the future mother-in-law the fabric for a dress and a French perfume, and a pearl necklace for the sister of the bride.

    Standing at the altar, I could feel that He was looking down at me from the heavens and was not angry. The Lord blesses our union: His face is illuminated with a benevolent expression full of love and kindness. He understands and accepts me as I am, for it was He who gave me a soul that is opposed to my body—and that means there was some reason it had to be that way. I felt no guilt before the bride. After all, I will ensure a good life for her and Harry, and I will be able to protect them from adversity.

                                                            .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

    June 15, 1906

    Today I wondered: why do I write in this diary? As a way to have a heart-to-heart with myself, to pour out my innermost thoughts? But there are many thoughts and feelings I cannot trust even this diary with, fearing revealing myself fully. Suddenly, in this handwritten mirror, I see the reflection of a freak who belongs in an anatomical theater or cabinet of curiosities...

    Why do I describe not only my personal life, but also events of wider social significance, if I hope that no one but me will ever read this diary? For now, I have no answers to these questions. Perhaps my entries will prove useful when I start writing my memoirs some twenty years from now, much like the memoirs of the cavalry maiden Durova?...

    July 20, 1906

    This cursed disease is progressing. I can feel my strength leaving me. In the past month I've lost five pounds, I'm becoming like a skeleton wrapped in skin, a consumptive, Pushkinian maiden condemned to death...[1]

    At night I awaken with a cough, sweating profusely, and in the mornings I have no desire to get out of bed. Several times I've coughed up blood. Walking causes me shortness of breath, I have trouble climbing to the fifth floor of the consulate and law office. I had to abandon my activities with the hussar detachment, as last week I could not mount a horse on my own. I lacked the strength to throw my leg over the saddle. The doctors are strongly urging that I quit smoking, abstain from alcohol, live life at a measured pace, spend more time in the fresh air. But dull evenings spent at home by the hearth, when you don't know what to say, when you grow weary of the constant presence of your wife and her incessant chatter about neighbors, prices at the market, and clothing, will drive me into the grave sooner than nighttime revelries with merry ladies and drunken friends.

    The only person who is genuinely concerned about me and to whom I feel attached is Harry. But of all living things in this world, nearest and dearest to me is my raven-black horse, Frou-Frou. We've been inseparable for eight years now. In that time, I've learned all her habits. Just by looking at her, the way she's breathing, the position of her ears and tail, I can determine what mood by maned friend is in with complete accuracy. If her ears are tense and raised high, then she is ready to fulfill any command; drooping and relaxed implies deep tranquility; pressed back indicates that Frou-Frou is dissatisfied with something, and that any manner of tricks can be expected from her. If she holds her tail proudly, then she is content with everything; if she constantly waves it back and forth, then something is bothering her, and the bit and saddle girth must be checked. Over the years, she's learned to read me backward and forward. Whenever she sensed I wasn't sitting steady in the saddle after the previous night's libations, Frou-Frou knew she could take liberties by not obeying a command precisely or ignoring it altogether, and everything about her appearance and gaze served to reproach me for my transgressions. And following quarrels with my wife or other troubles, when serving in the platoon my anxious state would be immediately transmitted to her, so I had to calm down before riding my beloved pet. But when I'm balanced and at peace, Frou-Frou happily yields to commands, and I don't need to pull on the reigns with force to make her stop, nor spur her glossy flanks to pick up speed; light touches and murmured commands are enough. I cannot imagine how she will live without me, nor I without her, we have grown into a single being—a real-life centaur.

    July 31, 1906

    The Chicago winter will surely finish me off, and in the most painfully drawn-out way possible. Was I born into this world just for it to end in such a way? More and more often on sleepless nights, I turn to the Almighty...

    Come down and lend me a helping hand, for I cannot find any support in this world, it has turned its back on me. Perhaps consumption is a punishment for my sins, but God sees that the whole of my sin is a life lived at the behest of my heart. If You created me like this, who is to blame—me, or the inscrutable ways of fate? God is love, and so He will be able to forgive me. And for my part, I forgive those who have wronged me, wittingly or unwittingly. And if I am destined to die soon, Lord, deliver my soul into Your merciful embrace.

    Maybe there,  for the first time in so many years, my soul will be filled with goodness and peace. Fear of being exposed will finally cease to dominate my thoughts. My spirit will whirl silently among disembodied, sexless souls, free from the desires and humiliations of the flesh. Or is it possible there won't be anything at all? Total silence, darkness, and peace, nothing but endless dreams about earthly life...

    The third day since I've gotten out of bed. My favorite poets are helping to distract me from dark thoughts: Pushkin, Tyutchev, Nadson, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats. Over the last few years I collected quite a decent library of Russian and English poetry. It even includes collections of poems by contemporary Russian poets: Bryusov, Gippius, Blok. Who will inherit my collection? If she isn't able to sell it, Anna will discard it as useless. I must ask her to give the collections of English poetry to the wife of Prince Engalitcheff—she likes to write herself. But what about the Russian books? Harry never learned to read decently in Russian. It's probably best if I pass them on to Father John...perhaps there will be connoisseurs among his parishioners.

    Keats and Nadson were struck down by consumption at the age of twenty-five. Both sensed that death was imminent and were able to capture their agony in verses that provide comfort to sufferers like myself:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

   .    .    .    .    .    .

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.[3]

 

                  *    *    *

There is a corner of a graveyard that I know:

The grass is fresher there – untrodden, it is springing,

And there the splendid lindens arcing shadows throw,

Above the ancient crosses birds are sweetly singing.

.                                               

This cross alone, as if a thoughtful hand, extends

Itself towards the place where your dear head is lying,

About it all it laughs as past with present blends,

About frail human memory, human love undying. [4]

    August 5, 1906

    I've begun to improve, my strength is slowly returning. Could it be that the Lord heard my prayers and all is not yet lost?

Yesterday I was able to get to the Church of the Holy Trinity, where I confessed to Father John and donated thirty dollars for the needs of the parish community. Father has long known about this illness that has befallen me and always finds words of support and consolation. This time, he immediately sensed what sorrowful thoughts were swarming in my soul, despite my external bravado. He spoke for a long time about how despair is a sin, that one must put faith not only in God's mercy, but also in the fight against the disease; I must go to the sanatorium like a hussar goes to a final battle, and Father will pray every day for my recovery. In response to my doubts that my loved ones would even be distressed by my passing, Father began to fervently convince me that sinful distrust of one's neighbor is caused by hopeless feelings about the disease, and that these carry a hidden poison of arrogance and denial toward Divine Providence. That God has sent me this trial of suffering to test how firm I am in my faith and love for my neighbor, and that He will be unable to help me if I don't put up a fight against this ailment myself.

   Then, in his deeply calming voice, Father John chanted a prayer to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker for help, which I repeated after him word for word like a traveler walking in deep snow by treading in the footprints of a guide:

    «Hierarch and father, O most holy Nicholas, thou extraordinary Saint of the Lord, our loving defender and ready helper in sorrows everywhere: help us sinners and hapless ones in the present life: entreat the Lord God to grant us remission of all of our sins, that we have committed from our youth and all our life, by deed, word, though and all our senses; and in the passing of our souls, help us wretched ones; entreat the Lord God and Maker of all creation, to deliver us from trials in the air and eternal torment: that we may alway glorify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thy merciful intercession, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen». [5] 

   After the talk with Father John, my soul brightened, I felt the desire to fight for life, and I gave him my word that I would soon go to the mountains of Colorado to a tuberculosis sanatorium. That will be an improvement in any case, because even given the worst possible outcome, I won't be condemned to stay confined to one place long enough to start hating my surroundings down to the very head and foot of my bed.

    With this entry, the diary of Nicolai de Raylan ends.

       

                                                                                      Nicolai de Raylan

  1. Raylan is likely referring to an excerpt from Alexander Pushkin's poem "Autumn," in which the poet compares nature's autumnal whithering to a consumptive maiden:

 

How shall I make it clear? I find her pleasing

As you perhaps may like a sickly girl,

Condemned to die, and shortly, who is drooping

 Without a murmur of reproach to hurl

 At life, forsaking her—upon her paling

Young lips a little smile is seen to curl.

She does not hear the grave’s horrific yawn.

Today she lives—tomorrow she is gone.


      Poems, Prose and Plays of Alexander Pushkin, translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. (New York: Modern Library, 1936), p. 78–81.

    3. Excerpt from John Keats poem “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be”.

     4. Excerpt from Russian poet Symeon Nadson (1862 – 1885) poem “In a Graveyard”. 1884. Translated by Rupert Moreton.

    5. Prayer to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. 

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