The hour of morning was perhaps nine, and I sat at the counter of the Troekurov, taking in a bit of local politics and a bit of lox on soft rye. A gentle hubbub had arisen aboveground, so I went over to the slit of slightly frosted window the restaurant shares with the sidewalk, and lo but the noise was a legion of worshipers crowding around Ekaterina and a few of her teammates, who were apparently out for a bit of early shopping. Her hair pulled simply back, her gleeful smile, her sporty track coat...oh, to nestle one's nose against her collar and take in her fragrance. An electric shock shot through my transom.
I was a man torn in halves. Pure passion tugged at my lapel, demanding with a fury that I run to her and let fate sort the cards, but calmer waters prevailed. Taking the dumbwaiter, I quickly ascended to the rooftop, where I was able to observe the town square with great perspective. The girls seemed to head off to breakfast at the human restaurant directly above the Troekurov, and once they had swung through its doors I immediately descended. The staff at the Troekurov make wide-ranging and regular practice of infiltrating their above-ground neighbor for comestibles, cutlery and linens, so it was Marko the waiter who showed me the wall and ceiling passages which would afford me the greatest maneuverability. The good fellow led me to a crawlspace rafter directly above their table, and even brought me a cup of coffee fortified with brandy as I sat and watched them through an air grate.
After two months immersed fairly deeply in the local language, I am fairly versatile with the stuff. For me it is the work of an instant to commiserate with passersby over the weather, the rising price of cod, or the unfortunate deaths of whichever teenagers had passed out in snowdrifts that week. Therefore I was pleased that my little aerie allowed me to overhear every snippet of their conversation.
Their chitchat consisted of what you'd expect from such a pride of beauts: what they expected to shop for, who did what last night, how's it going with him, how's the menu, fish as day's first meal is advisable, my mother just dug a trench, etc. I must admit that Ekaterina's voice was rather surprising. Rather than the delicate, warm lilt I had ascribed her in my countless travelers' daydreams, it was something more in the manner of a freshly electrocuted horse. Love doesn't reach for its hat at the first sign of trouble, however. I reasoned that she had taken a ball in the throat at practice the night before, or might just be coming down with a touch of something rather strong. I noticed that she drank cola, rather than the dark currant vodka of her teammates, so I was somewhat satisfied that she might merely be protecting her health.
Long have I enjoyed my care-worn copy of Gray's Anatomy, a thorough work on human bodily structure. While I sat and worked out whether a volleyball of diameter X could hit a woman of height Y in the crook of the throat where the vocal folds reside, the waiter brought their first course, a consommé. What I saw next rather put me off.
Consommé can be taken in with a spoon or, when presented in the proper vessel, picked up and taken like a tea. Most of the girls preferred the spoon, which is the more modern style, but a few, including Ekaterina, up and drained the bowl with their hands, though it did not have side-handles. Ekaterina was the only one who licked the inside of the bowl. Rather thoroughly, I might add. At one point I believe the object was entirely vertical, much of her face obscured.
This was more difficult to reason out. Perhaps due to her ill health it seemed imperative to her subconscious primal urges to consume every last molecule of the restorative. This rather embarrassing line of reasoning was quickly abandoned once the second course, a beautiful side of salmon in aspic, was presented.
No sooner had the team of waiters set the intricately decorated platter down in the center of the table than she dragged her enormous hand across it, taking up a fistful of the flaky pink flesh and wiping it onto a large slice of bread. The others made no notice of this as they picked up their fish knives and gathered somewhat more elegant portions. Ekaterina wolfed at the thing like a particularly peckish prisoner of war. I felt an uncomfortable knot grow in my throat as they finished off the fish and prepared for the meat course.
An exquisite suckling pig, roasted crisp brown, rested in the center of a silver salver, surrounded by fluffy scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and the classic parsley-tipped lozenge croutons. Unable to look away, I again watched in rapt consternation as the two waiters set the little beast in the center of the table.
Ekaterina did not let me down. She rolled up her sleeves as the waiters made off, and then her long arms shot out towards the thing. After a few seconds of throttling and wrenching, she had torn the little fellow's entire head off and set about devouring its face with an abandon normally reserved for animals in Stephen King novels.
As I stood to leave, the combined implosion of my love and the cruel brew of coffee with brandy, coupled with the cramped legs of an hours' sit, caused me to lose my balance. Tottering desperately with nothing to grab a hold of, I fell down onto the air grate and crashed right through to the table below, my fall broken by a decapitated suckling pig. I was not sure which of us was worse off.
All eyes were upon me, as you might expect. Surrounded on all sides by women of six-foot six or better, I called upon the old Bear nerve and charged at one, who naturally screeched and ducked away. A moment later naught remained but a flaming trail between their table and the front door. Ducking down an alley and dropping into a disused delivery slide which led to the Troekurov, I caught my breath. I had lost my hat in the ordeal, and imagined that even then Ekaterina was picking fine Pendleton wool from her teeth with a rib bone.
The gents at the bar were a bit curious as to my stench of ham and shaken nature, so with a heart on the dénouement and a bit of drama pulled from the inner wells, I bade them hear my story. Taking court before them I began at the beginning, and told what I never had before: the true reason for my presence there among the great people of Ekaterinburg. Up 'til this point all had been satisfied that I was a writer looking for a new place in which to work, so with undivided attention they listened as I spoke of a love at first sight, across an ocean, on a television set, a Russian girl in Greece stealing the heart of an American whose only wish was to put less of the globe between them. I told of selling my possessions, boarding a plane which went down in snowy wilderness, hitchhiking hundreds of miles only to be stranded in the woods at death's door, and landing in their fair city without so much as an inkling of Plan A. I then described that I had finally espied the object of my longing and followed her to breakfast, at last within feet of the woman I had traveled six thousand miles to meet. A gnat chewing on an atom of carbon would have been asked to leave, so silent was the room.
The Troekurov's clientele is a well-heeled one, and at the first mention of the consommé incident, a gasp or two went up. At the salmon incident, teeth were gnashed and a man threw his hat to the floor. Come the beheading of the suckling pig, all in attendance abandoned their stools and swarmed around me, several in tears. Cornelius had traveled love's truest distance only to have his heart broken at the moment of intersection. Cursed by beauty, they said. God's greatest trap. A good man, they said. To follow the heart is all we can do. Bless the romantic Russian soul, its poetic camaraderie does ease one's pain in times like this. Glasses were set on the bar en masse and filled with vodka. To the tragedy we drank, and we sang, and we ate, and we made bold proclamations and celebrated life during misery.
I leave Thursday next.