Kenneth Radu


In Catherine’s gardens of pathways, topiary, fountains, pergolas and bowers, pseudo wilderness and man-made lakes, flower beds designed by an eighteenth-century Englishman, statuary of playful Greek gods and nymphs, Delia separated herself from the troupe. She found her way to an arbour where she sat on a dirty stone bench in front of a thick wall of clipped ivy. Overhead through the slats, the Russian sky spread expansively in cloudless blue. From here she enjoyed a view of the back of the palace, less impressive than the front, and wondered about all the rooms behind rows of massive windows which they had not entered. Aside from the entrance, the amber room, one or two other salons, the ball room and gift shop, really, little of the palace had been explored. She suspected chambers of boxes and debris and reconstruction material. She had hoped to see a kitchen or kitchens. Where did the empress’s food come from? On one estate the guide informed the crowds that the kitchen existed in a separate building and servants carried meals in covered dishes, regardless of the weather, several times a day to the main house. Not convenient, but at least in case of fire, rather frequent, the manor house did not also burn to the ground. What gorgeous ceramic tiled stoves and chimneys rose from floor to ceiling in the corners of many rooms.

Kostya approached as if he had been looking for her, striding under the leafy arbour, fixing his gaze on hers so fiercely that Delia dropped her eyes and withdrew a mint from her purse to busy her hands and look down so as not to reveal her obvious surprise and possibly pleasure in seeing the lad. Rummaging about her capacious purse suggested preoccupation, indifference to his appearance, but it also disguised the effort to compose herself. Odd, it seemed that she had always been sitting in Kostya’s presence: on the boat in the dining salon, on the cruise ship deck, on the tour bus, and now in the gardens of the once sumptuous Catherine palace outside of St. Petersburg. Sitting to be served, always in the position of looking up to the lad, and he looking down, waiting for instructions or to give her what she wanted. Allowed on the tour bus he was enjoying time off today. He had sat directly across from her seat, spreading his legs in such a manner that she could reach over and touch a thigh or allow her eyes to wander to the centre of his body. Kostya eyes had caught her glance.

On shore he appeared taller out of uniform than he did on board. By all accounts she should be surprised to see him in this spot, for surely he would have preferred the company of the other crew who had joined the sightseeing tours rather than search for an old woman. Not that Delia entirely admitted to her age, and if she did, why Catherine the Great had enjoyed the services of a lover thirty years or more her junior, taking up with a twenty-two year old boy when she was already past fifty. What difference then did a few years on either side make? Delia straightened her back, glad that she did not sag, had successfully withstood the gravitational force which led senior citizens to droop. No one could accuse Delia of drooping, yet.

Kostya wore the latest Russian fad in shoes, golden-beige leather, elongated toes slightly tilted up at the tip like middle-eastern slippers. She thought of Ali Baba and the cave, the forty thieves, the great jars of oil and spices and jewels, semi-lunatic genies, and oh those severe Arabian men crossing scimitars over their burly chests and leaping in their baggy trousers, if that was the word for their pants. These shoes had the effect of lengthening the foot. Really, Delia, blushing, for slithering across her mind was the serpent of innuendo: the old story about the size of a man’s foot, nose, or hands, and the invisible appendage of more compelling interest. Nonsense, of course, but why would men choose to wear shoes that appeared to increase the size of their feet? Yes, well, Delia, why did some women wear impossible stilettos?

If she lingered here, she would have to speak to Kostya, exactly how remain problematic since neither spoke the language of the other. He walked with purpose towards her, Delia could see that. The legs of a gymnast, one of those gloriously built Russian athletes swinging elegant and powerful legs over the pummel horse or springing off a floor mat at every Olympics. She always watched the floor and gymnastic exercises. She sucked furiously at the mint. That little bronze statue of a centaur she had seen in the Winter palace, reared on its sturdy hind legs, hoisting a protesting nymph with whom he had every intention of galloping away and ravishing in a Grecian glade.

Those Greeks knew a thing or two about wild abandon. Oh, those Greek boys, indeed, Delia found herself remembering the guide in khaki shorts leading her through the ruins of the Parthenon, his curly hair the colour of black olives. She had read her Plato and knew all about the many stages of love, from the physical to the philosophical, the ascent towards wisdom. Well, she had been content not to reach for the spiritual sun that day since the earth had revealed its manifold treasures to her eager eyes and receptive heart.

Certainly she was old enough to be wise. No one could accuse her of giving in to her admiration for the virile lads in her Montreal night school classes. Travelling alone afforded anonymity and protection, it encouraged indulgence. She wasn’t, after all, in pursuit of underage pretty boys in Thailand. Old enough to resort to the consolations of philosophy, but she prefer to avoid that resort entirely. How easily a young man’s fingers or lips or legs, their expressions, the sweat on their necks, their fragrances, or their athletic tumbling after a volley ball in the sunlight, as she had seen naked young men do on a Mediterranean beach, how easily they turned her head and desires: how easy it was to come down from the heights of philosophy. Such beauty, all the more beautiful because so many lads possessed the earth unconsciously, utterly oblivious to their privileged status and exquisite forms. And here was Kostya, appearing as if some genie had divined her secret desires and made them manifest on the grounds where once a Russian empress walked her dogs with her adoring, magically young lover. What was his name? There had been several, but who was it in Catherine’s senior years? Would Kostya know? Oh, look, he comes to me. Delia didn’t think anyone he heard her rather loud sigh.

Above her when he stopped, Kostya’s physique created a shadow and she could look up from her seat without squinting. Between the slats and vines of the arbour overhead, pieces of blue sky and sunlight glinted like a ceiling panelled with sapphire and amber. She had reached the age when the sun cruelly exposed the true nature of a mature woman’s complexion. Although she had protected herself with sun block and subtle cosmetics that guaranteed a natural look while masking imperfections and finer wrinkles, the sun exposed signs of age the way it revealed dust in a room and the accumulation of dead skin on a Sheridan table. Quickly adjusting her vision and, retracting her hand before she allowed herself to touch his, extended towards her, Delia smiled. Kostya spoke the now familiar Russian greeting.

His lips, those blood-suffused lips. Lips that required a gentle tracing of her own fingers in order to appreciate their texture, lips parting to allow her fingers … the tongue. In the arbour’s shade Kostya’s blue eyes darkened. She assumed he was eighteen, but he possessed the loveliness of a younger male who had just recently emerged from the indistinctness of childhood into a man’s body. She couldn’t really inquire. What would have destroyed the inclination or mood or fantasy more than asking the boy his age? Before we go any further, my young man, exactly how old are you? She’d immediately place him beyond the pale of her own desires. So big, how effectively he protected her from the light as if he was slightly bending over her as she sat on the bench, his back curving like an umbrella.

Presumably a minimum age requirement existed for employment on the boat, but ah, the lips, the fullness thereof, the deep pinkish hue suggesting warm blood, somehow bespoke lack of experience, an innocence ripe to fall that made Delia instinctively offer him the mint she had been unwrapping. Or was that, too, a pose, inauthentic? What was the minimum age requirement here, she quickly asked herself, but did not pause long enough over the question to find a suitable answer. Kostya was more than a mere boy, chronology beyond that did not signify except in the narrowest of legal terms, and who, anyway, was really paying attention?

Kostya accepted, allowing the tip of his fingers to brush her palm, then circled the rectangular green mint resting on her hand like a gem. Long and pale, the knuckles prominent, the nails bitten rather than manicured, but clean. Such strong fingers like the fingers of a pianist, she imagined, how securely they could hold on to what they grasped. Quickly, quickly her mind fled from the image of one of those elongated fingers following the outline of her own lips as they parted. His fingers probing. How delicately they played pianissimo on the nerve-endings of her skin. The tips of his fingers ever so subtly danced a measured and slow pavanne, the forefinger leading the way, followed by the second, his thumb circling like a private dancer. Then he clasped the mint, raising it to his mouth and stood like a soldier at attention, except for separating his legs, standing too close, too wonderfully close.

Kostya held the candy before his lips, watching Delia watching him, his dark-eyed gaze lowered, half covered with smooth eyelids fringed with lashes women envied, and opened his mouth into a wide Russian smile, stuck out his tongue and gently placed the mint on the moist surface then withdrew, retracting the spongy pink flesh like a lazy lizard taking its time to consume its prey, and slowly sucked. She tried not to look up, knowing her eyes would search his under those lowered lids and follow each muscular movement of the cheek, as if mastication possessed hypnotically magical properties. Kostya quickly and suddenly sat down on the eighteenth century bench although it, too, could well have been restored or simply added last year for all she knew, his thigh too close to hers for she, well, recoiled was not the word, but perhaps retreated ever so slightly so as not to draw attention to the action or to give offense.

Perhaps Catherine the Great had lingered on this very bench with her lover, Lanskoy, the lad’s name unexpectedly crackled in Delia’s mind. A dream of a young lover he had been for the aging empress. Delia was conscious of concentrated heat on the palm of her hand. Kostya kept staring ahead, not turning his head to her at all, his arms crossed, and stretching his long legs out, crossing them at the ankle. Through the thinness of his white cotton shirt she could see the hardness of a bicep. Her eyes embraced his profile, able to distinguish where blush reddened the high cheek bones and the full curvature of his lips, thicker than most she had seen. A splash of red colour spread over his cheeks as if he were either overheated or blushing, but she suspected it was simply the effect of capillaries beneath the skin, although no less appealing for that. Naturally wavy, the colour of a Russian wheat field in August, broken with the occasional curl, his hair needed a trim, and invited a hand to tousle it as she would have loved to do. And if her fingers caught themselves among the wildness of his hair, what then? What fragrance? He wore a cologne which enhanced his body and infiltrated hers, reminding her of several youths in her classes who wore eau de cologne, the odour of youth. He must have known how susceptible she was to masculine scents, but she couldn’t imagine how he would have discovered her predilection.

What was Kostya doing here? Why had he followed or looked for her among the crowd? Because as he sat there, amazingly comfortable and relaxed in her presence, his legs stretched out and oh so casually crossed at the ankles in her presence, his jaws moving as he sucked on the mint, Delia began construing his motives. There was another empty bench in the arbour. He could not have come alone on this particular excursion. His silence and too-relaxed pose either suggested familiarity or, and here Delia heard her own breathing, of familiarity to come. She wished she had studied Russian. The lad knew no English aside from hello and yes.

He swallowed the mint and she riveted her eyes on the throat muscles. She could have watched his every movement all day, the protuberance of his Adam’s apple. Allowing her glance free range, she studied the outline of his thighs, noticed that his manhood rested along the left, snuggled tightly under cloth, even in its relaxed state, rather too noticeable to be entirely accidental. Staring at it, she believed, caused it to stir beneath the imprisoning cloth, elongate and awaken. How tempting to touch him there, the ideal embodied in the real, and he would not have recoiled in horror. Delia blushed, whether from the lad’s obvious ploy or from her own interest, she wouldn’t be able to say, if asked.

He uncrossed his legs, shifted position, and Delia felt his thigh pressing against hers, a deliberately considered move even to the point of determining how much pressure. As she did not retreat this time, Delia understood that Kostya clearly took her lack of protest as a sign of encouragement. He separated those vigorous legs wider to allow for an alignment of the two thighs, cloth against cloth, flesh against flesh, and he placed both hands interlocked across his flat stomach, leaned back and relaxed into her admiration. Really, if she had her wits fully about her, she would have stood and left without a word. Well, given the language barriers, no word would have sufficed, and she did not wish to leave him with an impression of disgust or dismay. No, that would not do because, as the leg pressed more assertively against hers, she remembered that little statue of the satyr embracing a bacchante, promising delirious abandon.

True, she was hardly a nymph, but oh that boy unsettling her calm and sucking on her mint could happily act the satyr. She had studied his legs long enough to know they did not crook like a goat’s and undoubtedly did not end in split hooves. Closing her eyes, she breathed in his fragrance deeply as if she were smelling the roses on the vine, past their prime, fading, losing their petals and most of their scent, but still his scent was sufficient for the moment. Ah, the heat of his flesh against her thigh, almost dissolving the fabric between them, so skin abraded skin and moistness mingled with moistness. She could almost hear her own blood rushing into the chambers of her heart. She leaned into him, aware of the compulsion of beauty.

Kostya then got up and stretched, raising his arms above his head, locking his hands behind it. His biceps flexed under the pressure, and his buttocks clenched beneath the tightened seat of the pants. There was a heavy gold ring on the third finger of the right hand, although she didn’t believe it could be an engagement ring. From her perspective on the bench it appeared to feature the craggy head of an animal, a lion perhaps. He remained in that pose long enough for her to enjoy it. That was clearly his purpose, to entertain, and long enough for her to become uncomfortable because, after all, the boy’s ass was virtually next to her face and she was now finding it difficult to breath. It would be more discrete if they were not seen together, more so if, in fact, he did not stand and stretch his body well within touching distance.

How confident the boy must be that she wouldn’t protest .That Delia wanted to touch him, run her hands up and down his legs, clench, lead his body closer to hers, so moistness may meet moistness. Then Kostya walked away. Not so much as a good bye or a smile, Kostya walked away, slowly, stopped at an opening in the side of the arbour where she expected him to glance back, which he did, and the tilt of the head seemed to suggest that she follow him. He must know the gardens and its secret places so well. He stretched one more time, quickly, and in that instant Delia remembered her Greek guide on the beach, rising from the splash of the sea and stretched his wet and glistening brown body.

Delia could still see the rippling of Kostya’s slacks over his thighs, the way the pants covered his buttocks, and how his white shirt clung to his back from perspiration. He turned left and disappeared, his scent wafted back on a breeze channelling into the arbour . Oh yes, cologne seeped into the very soul of desire. The mingling of scents, the smell of fragrance, the heady smells of the body … Sweet agonizing torment, to desire and refrain, to part the lips and receive no taste. Wisdom should have come to her aid, but lay chaste and virtuous on the ground, a young man’s elongated shoe pressed against it’s desiccated face. Age should have protected her, and it did during her classes when conducted her classes of philosophy like a Mother Superior overlooking novitiates.

Her body ached as if she had spent an evening making love with a vigorous satyr who had taken little thought for her comfort as he riotously took his own pleasures. Oh those long Ali Baba shoes! Here she was lingering within the scent of her Russian boy who looked as if he could be strong enough to hoist her in the air and carry off to a grove, if she allowed him, a satyr with a decidedly mature, but well-preserved nymph. And if she did not allow, would he let desire determine actions? She had led him on, had so blatantly accepted his intimations he could not be mistaken of the power he held, of how she had sacrificed authority and respect for the sensation of moist lips and subtle but insistence fingers.

Delia rose from her seat, feeling a stiffness in her legs from sitting so long, the mint entirely dissolved. She wondered if she had been meant to follow Kostya, if she had waited too long. How much time was left before the tour bus departed for the cruise ship. How could an assignation be arranged? He had been deliberate, he had wordlessly promised love, sensing her wishes, and wordlessly promised more if she followed. Delia took out a tissue and her compact mirror from her bag to check upon the condition of her eyes. Then, parting the ivy thick on the arbour, she saw Kostya in the distance, standing on a knoll, waiting, looking towards her although she could not be seen, the sun brilliant on his white legs.


Kenneth Radu has published several books including a memoir, The Devil is Clever (HarperCollins Canada), and three collections of stories, among them A Private Performance (Montreal: Vehicule Press) which won the Quebec Federation of Writers' Award for best English-language fiction. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming online in Clearfield Review, vis a tergo, fourpaper letters, Leaf Garden, Black Lantern, Four Cornered Universe, Eclectic Flash, LWOT and elsewhere. He lives in Quebec. A new collection of his short stories will be published in 2010 by DC Books of Montreal.