The Madness of Sebastian Pavlechenko: I

Sebastian Pavlechenko was unemployed, with distinction. That his condition, entering its fifteenth month, did not worry the Professor (a capital “P” for “previous”) worried his wife, the still-lovely Garbine Pavlechenko, greatly.

They had met in opium dream, glances snared in midmoment smoke. He had asked for a dance. She had said yes—on third attempt. He could not dance but it did not matter, and as she lost herself in his clumsy steps, she felt something shift deep within her, like a silent room rediscovering music.

They married the next day. Tradition dictated that the ceremony take place on the banks of the Volga; and so it did. As sole witness to holy matrimony stood Sebastian’s childhood friend Pudga, who in the expansion of his watchmaking business had grown prodigiously obese himself. Garbine’s parents were also present—a marvelous attempt on such short notice—but arrived too late. They left then as they had come: in haste, without a word.

Sebastian did not often think about his wife, not anymore. In fact, he had lately begun to notice that he did not think much about anything. Just earlier that very day, for example, during the sort of spring afternoon found on a poet’s page, Sebastian had found himself, quite suddenly, in his study. How had he gotten there? He could not say. His feet had carried him, yes, but what of the mind? He sought to consult the cranial creator but received no answer, an increasingly common occurrence. For Sebastian, a mathematician of some repute, these periods of amnesia (“fertilization”, one of his mentors had called it) once foretold imminent eureka. They spoke now of other sickness.

It was thus, without a thought in his head (and so much more the pity, for he had a large head, ideal for the storage of a great many thoughts) that Sebastian Pavlechenko left his apartment in the search of an answer. He did not know the question, not yet, but that there was one to be asked—and no one else clever enough to ask it—seemed to him quite self-evident.

He snuck out of the house an hour after dinner; Garbine would not comment on his absence if he returned before bedtime. Besides, she had of late developed an interest in documentaries, especially of the gory or ghoulish varieties; they alone claimed her attention in the evenings. He sometimes wondered if she noticed he was gone at all, and as he closed the front door, muffling the tat-tat-tat of gunfire from the recently-purchased television within, he thought it unlikely.

The air was pleasant, cold. The carcass of the meatworking district (the last in Kalyazin, and located rather unfortunately behind the brick-stuccoed house) welcomed Sebastian’s first step: calf blood and lye, leather and chlorine. He ignored it tonight.

He walked blind to the world. No purpose, no intention charted his course: to that task he assigned destiny. At the end of his home street he turned left; another left followed that street’s end; and a third left he took for good measure some time thereafter. At the completion of this circuitous route, the traversal of which left him short-winded, Sebastian Pavlechenko arrived, finally, at his destination.

The historical heartbeat of Kalyazin coursed through Ulitsa Karla Marksa’s northern end. A ragged median, brown grass not yet innervated by summer sun, sliced the motorway in two. Here and there squatted long buildings, their pink stone reduced to a dull grey under moonlight.

“Bad night to be wandering about, Sebastian.”

Already a man of a nervous nature, Sebastian Pavlechenko jumped in fright at the invisible voice. He whirled about to face his faceless assailant, fists clenched in violent parody.

Silence, and an empty street, greeted him.

“Up here, Sebastian. No, to your left—no, sorry, my left. Your right. Yes, you have the building. Now higher, top floor…there we go. Hello, Sebastian.”

The speaker, a handsome grey-haired man of near forty-five, extended a hand in greeting from his balcony towards Sebastian, who for his part stood quite bewildered on the opposite side of the road.

“Not one for idle chitchat, I take it? A wise choice in these times,” the man said, retracting the handshake with a congenial shrug. He wore nothing but a too-short raincoat, yellow striped with red. “Cigarette?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko. His throat had gone dry and he licked his lips. A train horn blared in the distance.

“Do you have a lighter?” the man said.

“I do not smoke,” Sebastian Pavlechenko replied.

The man laughed. “A good day to start then,” he said and threw onto the sidewalk below a cigarette and a match.

Sebastian crossed the street—looking both ways as he did so—and picked them up. He stood then under a bright light, very white, very fluorescent, and realized with a start all the other streetlights had gone out. Strange business, to be switched off so early.

“Oh, not so strange, I think. They take and they take until someone comes along, strong enough to stop them,” the man said. He had lit a cigarette himself and the smoke from its end drifted before him like a sluggish snake.

Sebastian Pavlechenko blinked. He looked upwards but was blinded by the light. Staggering two steps backwards he tried again, this time successfully. The man watched him with curiosity, and a smile.

“How did—how did you do that?” As he spoke, Sebastian Pavlechenko remembered the cigarette in his hand and with shaking hands struck the match. He inhaled tobacco smoke, coughed wretchedly.

“Careful, careful. That’s a Belomor—strong stuff. Treat her like a lover, Sebastian,” the man said.

“No, how did you—how do you know my name?”

The man grinned at the question, leaning over the balcony’s railing like a jungle cat ready to pounce. “You don’t recognize your old friend, Sebastian? Aleksandr Ivanov,” he tapped his chest, “from St. Petersburg. You remember. We studied Lie groups together under that horrid woman…what was her name? Natalia Kovalevskaya, wasn’t it?”

Sebastian Pavlechenko could only nod. He remembered Natalia—the first woman he had met more mathematically gifted than himself—but not the man he spoke to. “I am sorry but I can’t place your face,” he said. As if in apology, he drew heavily from his cigarette and was rewarded with another bout of coughing, worse than the first.

The man waved his arm. “We did not speak often. It’s not important anyway. Tell me, Sebastian,” he said, flinging his cigarette onto the street, “what troubles you so. I’m afraid we don’t have much time.”


The Madness of Sebastian Pavlechenko: II

Part I

“Time for what? I am sorry Aleksandr, but I don’t understand. This is all very strange,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko. He clung then with desperation to his cigarette (almost finished already!), whose every drag produced at least the expected response.

“But you’re doing quite well! Much better than the last fellow, I must say. How about I give you a clue? Point you in the right direction, set you on the proper track,” the man said, mimicking a military march, “that sort of thing. What do you think?” He was smoking two cigarettes at once by this time.

Dread, which had long been pressing against Sebastian Pavlechenko’s skull in prescient headache, invaded his entire body now. He moved to turn around, head back home, but mutinous feet would not lift off the ground. The lone working streetlight had begun to dim. “Please. I just want to leave,” Sebastian Pavlechenko said.

“Leave?” the man said with bunched brows and titled head, before laughter erupted from his mouth. The sound’s echo returned a few seconds later—but changed, less happy. “Leave? Surely you jest. I’m afraid it’s too late for that, for both of us. The only escape lies through victory, Sebastian. Do you understand?”

Sebastian Pavlechenko did not. He tried to shake his head but every muscle resisted, as if transformed into rusted metal. “I—I want to go home,” he moaned.

“As do we all, my friend,” the man said, and with a shrug, cast off his raincoat and leapt fully naked onto the balcony railing.

A thin gasp from an ancient place escaped Sebastian Pavlechenko’s lips; he could not breathe. And at that moment, as he fumbled to remember the prayers from his childhood, Sebastian Pavlechenko felt a great pressure at his back. He screamed, and as the pressure intensified, he thrust his arms outwards, hoping to arrest all forward momentum by flapping his hands like some idiot bird.

It was of no use. The sensation of weightlessness began at the top of Sebastian Pavlechenko’s head—he suddenly felt quite bald—and dribbled down the remainder of the mathematician’s body. It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation but the closer it got to his feet, the more Sebastian Pavlechenko resisted the transformation. He knew that if it were to reach them, he would float away, like a discarded balloon at carnival’s end, and all would be lost.

It was of no use. As much as he wriggled his toes—hoping one would latch onto something (but what?), or perhaps drop off entirely, so that a future policeman, assigned to the mystery of his disappearance, could come across it and deduce the whole of the matter—Sebastian Pavlechenko could do nothing. And when the process completed and he was lifted at last off the ground, Sebastian Pavlechenko felt the pressure, more gentle now, relocate from his back to his chest: he was pulled towards the man on the balcony.

He flew—that he had no control over the action, or its destination, did not diminish this fact. It was not an elegant flight. He tumbled end over end and with each revolution the bric-a-brac from his coat’s pockets fell onto the street below: a pink candy wrapper; job clippings from yesterday’s newspaper (he had not looked at them); the receipt for a television from the electronic store around the corner. The coat too attempted to escape but Sebastian Pavlechenko clung to: it had been a gift from Garbine. To lose it would be unforgivable.

He came to a stop at last, upright, forty feet above the ground. The balcony was at his back, the forgotten town of Kalyazin beneath his feet. Lights dotted the landscape here and there like flickering fireflies. To his left, at the end of the street, roiled the great Volga. Moonlight bounced off its black surface and the current-shifted reflections created the impression not of a river but the scales of a vast serpent, many kilometers wide, slithering onwards toward richer feeding grounds.

“She is beautiful.”

Sebastian Pavlechenko glanced to his right. The man who called himself Aleksandr Ivanov watched the world below with longing from his perch, unconcerned with his naked form. The age of his body, gluttoned with fat and pockmarked with pimpled spots of yellow, did not agree with his handsome face.

Sebastian Pavlechenko did not agree with Aleksandr’s assessment. Mighty, yes, but beautiful? No. He shuddered at the resurfacing of a childhood memory. Attending a friend’s birthday party on the riverbank, he had almost drowned in its tides when playing with the other children. Deep water had held primal fear for him ever since. In vain he tried to think of happier times, but the river called to him, insistent, and he stopped finally to listen. From it rose a great sound, not of rushing water but of broken music, a thousand adagios slain and reanimated in Frankensteinian purpose. A funeral song.

“Ah—so you hear it too!” The man clapped, quickly, twice. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one. What a happy night—to discover one hasn’t gone mad after all!”

“Or we both have,” Sebastian Pavlechenko mumbled.

The man laughed in genuine humor. “Ever the pessimist, Sebastian! Tell me, do you feel mad?”

“Yes. Almost certainly.”

“Exactly! What madman understands his condition? No, no, my good friend, you are just as sane as I,” the man said, flashing perfect teeth in triumph as he pointed to himself.

“A comforting thought, to be sure,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko.

“You doubt yourself too much, Sebastian Pavlechenko. Without reason, I would say, but what do I know?” the man said, and as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his body, starting from his head, began to ripple like a windswept flag.

“Certainly mad,” mumbled Sebastian Pavlechenko. He slapped one cheek, then the other. “Wake up, wake up, wake up. Please,” he prayed between slaps, to no avail.

“But you have awoken, Sebastian Pavlechenko,” said the rippling man as he opened his eyes once again. Skin and fat sloughed off him now, breaking apart into rainbow thread as they separated entirely from his body. “Come, take my hand, we must get going!” He looked towards the eastern horizon: the first colors of twilight had begun to escape its black mouth.

Sebastian Pavlechenko jumped—or would have had it been possible. “Morning already! But that’s impossible! It cannot have been more than two hours since I left home!” The thought of his apartment brought another matter to his attention. “Oh, Garbine—I have left her all alone, without notice. She must be worried sick! I’m sorry darling!” She must have called the sergeant by now. In expectation he searched the street below, certain police sirens would explode from a corner at any moment.

“We don’t have time for this, Sebastian! Grab my hand!” the thing that had been Aleksandr Ivanov cried out, extending its right hand towards him—the left had already blown away. Its eyes held for the first time fear.

“Mad, mad, certainly mad,” laughed Sebastian Pavlechenko. The river’s music roared. He reached for Aleksandr Ivanov.