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Duty Free

by Andrey Kuzmichev

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 2


He woke up as if he had been drowning and came up for air. The descent into Vnukovo was being announced. His mind lay hushed, a lawn of twitching stars, his heart drummed with an emotion he did not understand. Then his dream rose before him in its otherworldly awe.

Amidst the clouds behind the window loomed an Orthodox temple, its cupola adorned with gilded leafs and elaborate crosses. A girl with a long braid stood on a balcony, her red coat beating in the wind, her hands stretched out, her mouth open in a plea or a song.

The image was rendered in verses. They spun without end: zooming on one detail, he saw it expand into a whole page of text. Fragments linked to one another: from the girl’s face he could jump onto a turret or a cross, or the surrounding clouds.

Verses followed an uneven, fluent meter: they opened in iambic pentameter but later took on a ballad style; in parts, he recognized the archaic hexameter. The stanzas of a wonderfully musical Sapphic eleven-footer described the girl.

Returning to the same passage, he found at times that its meter had changed. He could not gauge the length of the text — it ran at least two or three hundred lines, all of the most polished language. He looked closer at the girl’s lips: she did not sing or plead but recited the very words that described the vision.

“Thank you” — he addressed his first thought to the skies behind the window — “for hearing my prayer, for granting my wish.” His great poem was before him, his own at last.

Undoubtedly, the girl in pink furs had inspired it. She was part of the vision, the girl on the balcony, in whom he also recognized the red-coated Eupraxia. Or had she dictated the poem earlier as she stood whispering at the lavatory door?

He had to write it all down, not to let the miracle slip through his fingers. He reached for the bag, but remembered that he had forgotten his pen and notebook. He looked around: empty chairs, not a soul in sight.

The flight attendant lowered her face to his ear. “Your seat, please.”

“Do you have a pen?”

“I’ll look when we land.”

“You don’t understand,” he heard himself whine, “I need it now.”

She pressed the button on his armrest and stood up.

He kept reciting the poem. On one replay, he noticed that the text had lost connectedness: he could no longer jump from one detail to another. His heart leaped with urgency: the vision would fade if he didn’t make haste to put it on paper.


He tossed in his seat through touchdown and taxiing. When the lights came on and seatbelts began to clank, he looked anxiously around. Two aisles away, a short-haired woman in an Olympic team blazer struggled with an oversized duffel bag. He helped her pull it down.

“Have you got a pen?” he asked in Russian.

She creased her chin and tapped the pockets on her chest and hips. “I need it back.” She handed him a Bic.

He rushed to his seat, flipped to the Coleridge endpaper but, remembering the woman’s stipulation, turned around. As the doors opened, he found himself stranded halfway by the ebb of shuffling figures. On a new recital, the poem had lost its metric fluidity: the text, still vivid, now all ran in iambic pentameter, the ballad and Sapphic passages permanently re-written.

Exiting passengers brushed their coats and bags against him and squeezed him into one seat or another. He saw the pink furs sail by, the girl’s eyes buried in her “worlddutyfree” bag.

The stewardess tapped him on the shoulder. “Can’t stand here.”

He conceded the pen to the duffel-bag woman and returned to his seat.

“Keep walking. No stopping.” A uniformed woman at the jet bridge dismissed his new plea for a pen. She held her hands spread wide, using them as a traffic divider between the trickle of London passengers and the crowd disembarking from the Chengdu flight at the neighboring gate.

Before he could blink, he was standing by the border control booth. A sad-eyed girl looked at him with a sympathetic curiosity as she returned his blue passport.

“Welcome home, Nikolay Petrovich.” She stressed “home” and “Petrovich,” his father’s name.

About to hand him his red passport, she glanced at her watch. It read 16:05. As her wrist turned, she noticed the yellow dot on the back cover. “So sorry. I have to detain you for a secondary check.”

His jowls knotted. Every wasted minute meant his vision would continue to crumble. The text no longer expanded when he zoomed in on the fragments. The remaining narrative, still extensive, ran linear, flat.

“We’ve had Chechen threats,” the girl explained. “Surely you are no terror mastermind, but London flagged you and we can’t be seen taking shortcuts.”

Peering over the iron bars, he saw the pink furs drift away from the baggage carousel and towards the exit. The girl moved fast on her crane’s legs and not once looked back or slowed down.

“Devushka,” he rested his elbows on the counter. “Would you lend me a pen?”

The girl raised her brow. A spark glimmered in her sad eyes.

“Something to write on, too?”


She scrabbled under her desk and laid on the counter a pencil and a blank customs form. She tidied her hair and straightened her uniform.

“Write on the back,” she trapped his eyes with a professional gaze.

He sat in a glass cube next to Mongolian dancers rounded up from the Chengdu flight. Women in embroidered costumes chattered in a melodious tongue.

He rested the Coleridge on his knees and flipped the customs form. He gasped: on the back in schoolgirls’ hand was written: Porluk O.S. (495) 159-79-23.

What a strange name. He turned the paper in his hands. It sounded familiar, but he could not remember where he heard it. What kind of girl gives her middle initial with a phone number?

The pencil slipped from his fingers. His body stiffened, his face turned yellow. He crumpled the paper and slung it with such momentum that it ricocheted off the glass and smashed into his chest.

The Mongolian dancers stopped chattering and stared at him. He opened the book and, biting into his knuckle, rummaged through the preface. His finger froze under one passage and he read out loud: “Coleridge perceived Kubla Khan in a dream, but a visitor from Porlock interrupted his writing and he lost almost the entire poem.” He slumped in the chair. If anyone could have peered into his soul, he would have seen a smoldering desert.

At that very moment, he remembered where he had seen the girl’s name and forgotten his poem. Every last verse had been erased from his consciousness. The image still lingered, a meatless carcass, but the words had been stripped off it and whatever new ones he scrambled to put back on sounded wrong, alien, wooden.

He let the book flop on the floor and clawed his hair. He had retrieved his passport somehow. He extricated himself from the cube and shambled through the green corridor.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2015 by Andrey Kuzmichev

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