The Last Offering

Olga Grushin

The Last Offering

WHEN I WAS little, I lived in a palace, and I had a kingdom to inherit. My subjects came to me often, from many wonderful places, and every time, paying a visit, they brought to my white-walled domain sundry offerings of the world.

My mother and father always greeted them graciously, like close friends, and in and out of the nursery they shuffled in a smiling procession.

"But isn't he a wonderful little boy?" they said to each other in loud voices and shook their heads with delight. "He has his mother's eyes! He has his father's nose!"

And I watched with a heart beating fast, as, from checkered depths of their suitcases, they summoned forth red plush dogs swelling with German barks; Japanese whistles shaped like dragons, carved in fragrant wood and with a sakura pit rolling sonorously inside their lightness; Czech peasant women woven with aromatic hay; powdered and wobbly Pierrots in gondolas sewn out of rainbow-colored shreds and studded with pieces of mirrors; and once, even a Georgian drinking horn framed in engraved silver. The horn, though, my father carried away from the nursery and into the main hall. There he locked it behind the glass doors of an oak cabinet, already filled with rows of bottles, potbellied and rectangular, with vermilion, purple and golden labels on them.

"All in good time, your highness," my father the king said, laughing.

My realm did not have boundaries. Metallic throats of nightingales shivered with songs in centuries-old snuff boxes; thimbles spilled over with cherry trees and gleamed every spring with the pink pollen of blossoms; whirling wax Persian dancers emitted dense, amber-tinted smells of musk. But above everything else I liked oriental gifts from miniature old women the color of papyrus, with their big eyes drawn on their faces the size of a child's fist. Oh, how I remember those small bits of dull-tinted cardboard, which you had only to throw in the water to see them flower into misty green castles, fiery lilies, and gigantic black butterflies whose wings then melted into crimson sails and strove for the pearly shores of some dreamy isles. . .

 

*

But one day, when I was five, a visitor came whom I had never seen before. He was bald and nervous, dressed in a brown winter coat with a turned-up collar of fake fur. His handshake was damp, and his left eyelid twitched. The man smelled of cheap eau de Cologne and some fish, and I saw the maids glance at each other uncertainly in his wake as he slowly rose up the grand staircase.

"So glad to make your acquaintance," he said to me without a smile.

He lisped unpleasantly, and his accent was thick.

He also brought a toy, wrapped in a foreign newspaper. Squeezing sideways between the throne and the wall, he murmured in a strange language, thrust his offering at me, blinked his vague turtle's eye, and was gone from the nursery.

Inside the bundle I discovered a plastic violin with a brand of some remote northern country imprinted on its bright white side. It produced rarefied, strenuous sounds: the strings were made out of a sky-blue fishing line.

"How pitiful and ugly," I heard my mother the queen whisper to my father when the stranger had gone. "Poor Viktor, they must not have any decent toys over there!"

They put it away, in a corner abandoned to all the things broken and unloved, and forgot all about it.

 

*

For a long while after that no one else came. And after some time the rooms in our palace started to shrink, and my toys began to disappear, one after another. Nobody carried them off, they just vanished while no one was looking, evaporating from the memories of everyone around me-except my own. At first I lost the enchanted gifts of southern and eastern lands, and then the window sills stood bereft of the tiny trees and singing birds.

"Excuse me," I once said shyly, "but do you know where my silver nightingale went?"

My mother glanced up at me with surprise, and her glasses slid down her nose.

"Nightingale, my dear?" she said absently, her pencil still poised in her hand. "I don't remember any nightingale, did you have one? Oh well, it must have flown away then. Birds do that, you know."

She smiled, pushed her glasses up, and bent her head back to her drawing. For another moment I stood still, watching her, feeling suddenly that things were not well.

"What are you doing?" I finally asked her.

"Making a plan of a new office building, my dear," she replied without looking up again. "That's what engineers do. But run along now, love. Mommy is working."

One day shortly afterwards I woke up to find a whole cupboard missing, only yesterday filled with such marvelous sparkling, chirping, moving things, and the space itself tightened to hide the newly formed void. Soon nothing was left but my red plush dog called Beauty, I treasured her above all else in life, but soon she too was gone. And then I went and found the dusty violin in the now-empty corner, once overflowing with armless dolls and boxes of dented marbles.

I pushed it under my chin and touched the fishing line with a bow. It emitted a solitary twang. I closed my eyes and played.

In the beginning I could not stop imagining flashing bodies of fish with their lips torn, wriggling in the reddened water with their fat, spotted bellies. Then, after some months, it passed, and I felt a sort of enjoyment, pressing its smooth plastic side against my face and imitating the inspiration of a musician I had seen a long time ago.

"Do you hear that?" my mother would call triumphantly to my father across our small apartment. "We should try to get him a music teacher when he goes to school next year!"

And only from time to time I was still sorry- sorry almost to the point of tears-about the miniature cherry trees that had once grown in my mother's thimbles.

 

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