The Rider

Kristen Gleason


I waited at the discotheque in my new hat of seal and fox, a gift from my classmate Gafarova. I had no plan but was thinking of the night before when I'd also been alone and alone met Gafarova and Nesby and lovely Linn. Think of me: I was Bu with no hat at a table in the boom of the boom, wearing an ascetic's cheek, a dark shade in the green-eyed pool, no reflective vest, richly spiced against the open snow, when my classmates arrived and said, Bu, we recognize you, come sit with us, and I had company after months of none.

I bought five that evening—two for Linn to show her my warm idea. Please, two is my generous habit. Two is my country. For the strength of our studies, I said. I offered praise for her solid teeth and the seat next to mine. She wouldn't sit but smiled and drank what I gave her. Gafarova and Nesby took the other two and emptied them with double gulp. Nesby took the seat I had offered Linn and rubrubrub my shoulder, as if I might grant him his private wish.

Gafarova said, Bu, shit, you're far from home. Do you miss it? I made a private trip across the ice that was forever making away with my wallet—past the fast-risen rig that plumbed the fjord overnight, down to bare feet on the living field, my linen, my green and yellow mallets, and my father's glass lamp. I said, Sometimes, but why think of it?

Nesby and Linn danced to the hot la-la, so I got going in a warm tunnel of my own. Between couple and couple, I tended to deepest beats on the dance floor, though I felt sick to see her follow a snowman's shuffle instead of mine and could not reach my height. They summoned music from warmer climes, they blacked the windows out, but they could not hide what was shining there—five meager whale-pots flaming out in bitterest cold.

Gafarova drank. He gripped my bringing hand, greening with greed. What do you eat, he said, to be that thin? Is there nothing here you like?

I said, Up here I eat mad richness and smoke, sent by my subjects via international post to me, their leader Bu, who is trapped in the arctic and exiled from taste.

He laughed and laughed like a bear's cousin. I asked Gafa, How can I win Linn's prize? Will you teach me, in her language, what passes for a nice word? Oh yes, he said. Oh yes.

He gave me a phrase as we watched Nesby on the dance floor, wasting his good fortune, axing the feather, winking, over Linn's cunning shoulder, at me. He's got his eye on you, said Gafarova. Keep an angel around your neck if you're not that type of guy.

I'm not, I said, but I have a light hand. Is my meaning right? I am not cruel.

Gafarova embraced me. You idiot, take my hat, he said, made in Arkhangelsk by a genuine witch of the woods in her chicken-footed house. You must stay warm up here. You must try to fit in too. He pulled the hat onto my head, caught my ear and spilled his drink, which I had bought, into my lap. Ha ha, he said, I'm not in my body.

Linn left. I rushed outside, shivering in my new hat of seal and fox, ears aflap and dangling string. Tsst, I said, to catch her, but she did not hear. Tsst, I said again. I yelled, This is a night fucking, Linn! A night fucking for you and for me. And she hurried away.

Inside, Gafarova still gab-gab and loose, said, Where are the woods in this country? Do you know woods, Bu? Are there woods back home?

I thought of the unlucky rider, trapped on the spine of the white mare, who was herself trapped on the spine of the land, galloping along an arrowed stream set to pierce the sea. I said, Careful not to mount her, Gafa. She'll drown you in pleasure.

Gafarova took my glass and smelled the last inch of drink. You're drunk, classmate, he said. Let me finish this.

Nesby sulked on the fabric bench. From his loser's slouch, he raised his anise to me as I left. See you in class, Bu. Stay warm.

At home I went shirtless to the discotheque, which was no type of signal. There, dust of days was fine, and the bar was a courtly scene. Every age of loss was welcome. You could do right by staring, and many times I had drawn a woman or a friend or a night's kind disciple with nothing but Bu's sweetest look. There was no depression in the abstract, so the dance could go on for a long time, hours into days, sleep forgone so the pulse might build and bridge the gap between one and two. So many nights this company was my food. I'd built a life on a good, long stare at the discotheque.

But tonight, waiting for my classmates, I saw the whale-pots nested in snow, lighting the men and women outside, and felt, at once, the severity of night that followed night without pause. Wouldn't I light a fire for the rimiest witch? Even if she were to wear the blackened fingernails of her men, if she were to dangle them from her ear on copper hoop, even if—wouldn't I set a place for her as my mother had taught me?

Gafarova flickered in the doorway of the discotheque, caught my eye and pretended he hadn't, stood hatless in the day or the night, who could tell. Linn arrived in the snowy street, and the two of them laughed, not greeting me, not drinking what I'd bought, not warming by my fire, but watching me wait on the wide, wide stage of the world's theatre.