I often go to the bar before teaching a class. It isn’t the best habit but, not my worst.
I get a beer, just one, something dark. I sit and watch the bar come to life. Today the bar is dead. But, the bartender is not.
It is a holiday, Maslenitsa, they call it. Maybe I will get two beers to celebrate. Half way through my third beer, the door opens. It is a woman, heavily and colorfully dressed. She walks slow, but confident. Her head is covered in a soft mauve bonnet, though she does not appear to be a babushka. She approaches the bar. With her head down, she speaks. The bartender nods. Then, she turns, she begins walking straight towards my table. I sit up. She stops.
“May I sit?” She asks, in a perfect English accent. She doesn’t look up at me.
“Sure,” I say, admittedly taking up a rather big table to myself.
She pulls off her bonnet as she sits. I frown, trying not to stare. Thin vertical lines stretch the entirety of her face, and, I notice, her face appears to be painted on. I lean closer, her expression doesn’t change. Then, the center of her face splits down the middle.
“Staring is rude,” she says, through the gap.
The face remains impassive, but the vertical gap curls at one end.
“So is that,” it says, flatly.
“Uh, what are you?” I say. I want to take a sip of my beer but my hands are shaking too much. I rub them on my legs.
The gap in the woman’s face splits again.
“I am Lady M,” she says, simply. The bartender comes from behind her. He places a thick, oddly colored drink in front of her. The gap that splits her nose in two, opens.
“Thank you,” she says, in Russian. Then adds something I don’t catch. The bartender returns a moment later with a straw. He places it in her drink. She leans down and the straw slips into the crack in her face. She drinks but makes no sound. I test my hands by taking hold of my beer. I squeeze it. Perhaps too hard. I take a drink.
“Are you scared?” Lady M asks.
“I—I don’t know, should I be?”
She shakes her head. I notice flecks of straw falling into her drink. It doesn’t seem to bother her.
“I just wanted some company. I don’t get to be here long.”
I swallow some more beer. “What do you mean?”
“I am an effigy, I’m meant to be burned so that spring can come.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Lady M shrugs, it makes a rustling sound beneath her vibrant dress.
“Without me, spring would not come.”
“Ah, thank you, then?”
“Your welcome,” she says, without false-modesty.
She continues sipping away at her drink. I try not to watch. I notice that what I first thought were vertical lines are actually long thick bundles of straw. They are getting wet around the corners. She leans back.
“Is that not painful?” I say.
“What?” She asks.
The split in her face widens and she laughs. It sounds brittle. The laughter fades. She doesn’t respond right away. Then the gap opens.
“Does—“ it closes. She cocks her head to the side. “Does living hurt?” she finishes.
I frown. “What do you mean?”
She shrugs. “Well, you know, you have to be here for a long time, and make decisions, and be hurt many times. And even sometimes, you hurt others. Is that not painful?”
“I,” I think for a moment. “No?” I decide. “I don’t know.”
Lady M looks thoughtful—as much as a painted face can look thoughtful–for a moment.
“If you didn’t feel pain, would your life mean much of anything at all?”
I try to think about her words. I squirm in my chair, feeling outclassed, a poet’s dog.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you really accomplish anything without pain, or at the very least, discomfort? Yours or others?”
I finish my beer, biding for time. I put the glass down, harder than I intend. It breaks. I pull my hand back. The bartender comes rushing over. Lady M watches the whole charade, unflinching. The bartender is efficient. The glass is gone in a moment. He returns a minute later with a full beer. He places it down.
“Sorry,” he says, in English.
“No, it was my fault!” I call after him, but he’s walking away. I look at the beer. If I drink it I run the risk of being too drunk to teach. I sigh and take a sip.
“You’re bleeding,” Lady M says, casually.
I look at my hand. Watery blood is slipping down the glass.
I feel nothing.