The Black Handkerchief by Gwen C Katz is the third story in our 2019 fiction series, by Gwen C Katz. Narrated by Lara Zielinsky.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 37e with Heather Rose Jones
Listen to this story here
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Gwen C Katz Online
Links to Lara Zielinsky Online
please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect.
[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment one thing I look for when choosing stories for the lesbian historic motif podcasts fiction series his stories were the fact of women loving each other is taken for granted and situated among all the other conflicts Joy’s and adventures of life such stories can involve drama tragedy and danger without those things being focused around the character’s sexuality Quincy Katz has given us a story of those dangers set in Russia on the cusp of revolution she describes herself as a writer artist and Nazi puncher who lives in Altadena California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals her first novel among the red stars was a 20-17 jr. library guild selection she’s on Twitter as Gwen see cats and her website is Gwen C cats.com our narrator today is Laura szalinski Laura is a published author of lesbian and bisexual women’s fiction an avid reader she devours anything related to words women and love she’s on Twitter as LC szalinski and on Facebook as author Laura Zielinski the black handkerchief by Gwen C cats read by Laura szalinski st. Petersburg 1881 I’m standing on Nevsky Prospekt holding a black handkerchief the passers-by give me a respectful distance they think I’m in mourning in a sense they’re not far off but I was wearing black long before today Natalia didn’t understand it she wore gowns of pink or yellow arrey with lace very like fairy-like was how she had appeared when I first met her I was just eight and much intimidated by the old housekeeper who opened the door of that fine city house she frowned at the letter I handed her as though she’d never heard anything about a poor relation coming to live with them and I feared I’d be sent back to toil and starvation and birchbark shoes then Natalia appeared on the stairs when she mommy she put both hands on her cheeks and squealed Lera she cried rushing forward and taking me by the hands you’re finally here we’ll have such fun together and just like that we were best friends I never had any say in the matter one of Natalia’s many books was about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole that was how I felt at Natalya’s house the rooms seemed endless each one filled with new curiosities on the parlour wall there hung an ink drawing of a crane perched on a branch it was all drawn with a few quick strokes yet there was incredible life in the birds figure Natalia’s father had brought the picture from Japan along with two heavy wooden chests which I imagined were full of treasures until I discovered to my disappointment but they contained spare bedspreads Natalia had her own room and a whole closet filled with dresses instead of sleeping on a stove she had a big four-poster draped with damask curtains the rules of society people were strange and inscrutable we might walk in the garden but it was unseemly to run our pinafores had to remain spotless maintain good posture and be seen and not heard when adults were present at mealtimes there were strict table manners if my elbow straight onto the table or I reached for my fork before the adults did I was in for a rap on the knuckles we saw Natalia’s parents only at mealtimes if we had a splinter or a skinned knee the old housekeeper was the one we ran to I would have been lost without Natalia for years we did everything together she taught me my letters out of her books of fairy tales we drank tea out of little round cups with dragonflies painted on them there were no tea glasses at the Tanaka house and at night we slept side by side in the four-poster bed there was always another party Maslenitsa and New Year’s and natalia’s birthday blending together in a sore of colors it was before one of these occasions that Natalia’s father called us into the parlor and laid out for her a rainbow of bolts of imported cloth yellow with flowers green with branches blue with little birds pick one he told Natalia Natalia made a great show of deliberating before settling on a bolt of peach colored silk then she said you pick one too Lera she caught me by surprise mindful of my lesser position and unable to picture myself in any of those lavish colors I picked a bolt of plain black wool Natalia frowned you don’t understand you can pick any of them I picked this one I said at the party Natalia was radiant in her dress I was invisible in mine I decided I preferred it that way I’ve been wearing black ever since everything was simple in those years we studied together played tricks on the old housekeeper begged Natalia’s father for new hats and gloves our futures were clear she would marry a fine young gentleman and she would see to it that her father gave me a modest dowry and set me up with a respectable clerk or shopkeeper and we would be best friends forever what happened was it the night of the storm Natalia pretended to be afraid of things because it got her the sort of attention she liked boys gallantly trapped spiders for her and climbed ladders to fetch things off high shelves and she looked up at them through her lashes and smiled and everyone thought she was a darling and dear in reality she wasn’t afraid of anything which was how I knew when I woke up and found her curled up and shaky that it wasn’t the lightning it was the night of her 14th birthday and the weather had been wretched all day there had been a party of course and a crowd of family friends told Natalia how grown-up she looked in her new blue gown her father was not among them he was away finishing a business deal he’d sent a telegram saying that he would be back in time for her birthday the day came he did not and now Natalya was awakened crying Natalya I whispered touching her shoulder what is it he said he’d be here she said her voice wavering he promised I wanted to say so many things I wanted to tell her how my parents had cut me out of their lives like I was nothing but an inconvenience but everything I could think to say seemed wrong instead I wrapped my skinny arms around her she snuggled close against me something stirred in me that I’d never felt before my hands strayed so did hers and the night went in an entirely unexpected direction from then on scarcely would we turn off the gas light at night before we rushed into each others arms we were half nervous half afraid of being caught yet we couldn’t hold back our desire in the mornings we emerged flushed and bright-eyed certain her parents would notice but to them we were still little girls no that wasn’t the moment everything changed I remember now it was the article but Tanaka’s were fashionable people and at the time the fashionable thing was to subscribe to all the newspapers and know the latest developments in all the political debates Natalia and I implicitly knew these papers were not for us girls had far too many concerns of their own to worry about something so frivolous as politics but the newspapers were always lying around on one endless winter night I began flipping through one and my eye fell on an article titled the workers and the Sphinx I began to read thinking it had something to do with mythology what I encountered was something altogether different the council of action declares that so long as the working masses are plunged into the misery of economic servitude all so-called reforms and even so-called political revolutions of seeming proletarian character will avail them nothing I read to Natalia they are condemned to live in a forced ignorance and to accept a slave status by the economic organization of wage slave Society Natalia laughed what a load of nonsense this isn’t the dark ages we have all kinds of reforms the Tsar abolished serfdom workers and peasants have everything now I don’t have everything I said indignantly remembering how my feet had cracked and bled on cold nights you do now said Natalia lightly poking her embroidery needle through the piece of silk she was working on I closed the paper but I didn’t forget the words Natalia was 16 then and beginning to attract gentlemen callers none were interested in the poor relation who wore black dresses so while our nights were occupied with each other I found more and more time to myself during the day I read the newspapers I began to grasp the ins and outs of the different political arguments one day there was a notice about a meeting I made up an excuse about going to buy ribbons and went out the meeting was in a dingy apartment over a cobbler shop journalists and university students and other intelligentsia in shabby winter coat stuffed the small room the ears of their hats pulled down low for it was November and the apartment had only a small oil drum stove in the corner there was a name for these sorts I’d learned it from the newspapers Niraj Nix the people’s people they styled themselves reformists but they were far from respectable I slid into the corner and tried to make myself as small as possible a young man with a wild spiky hair and the beginnings of a peach fuzz beard stepped up to the front of the room his eyes were like live coals at the sight of him the hubbub of voices died down brother said the young neurotic we are all here because we recognize the dangers of the state the state means nothing but domination and exploitation murmurs of approval from the crowd some say that the ruling class deserves to rule he continued they say that the czar is divinely ordained because he is the wisest most benevolent and most suited to rule this is nonsense power corrupts nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command even the best man the most intelligent disinterested generous pure will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade they will inevitably come to believe in their own superiority and despise the masses no man can be trusted to rule least of all the one who believes God has chosen him I left with my heart pounding politics was supposed to be a game to entertain idle noblemen but the look in the young Narada Nick’s eyes convinced me that this wasn’t a theoretical discussion back at the house Natalia sat in the window tossing her hair as she watched a departing cab what a ridiculous FOP you should have seen him all he cared about was the cut of his jacket where were you by the way the housekeeper said something about buying ribbons I realized I had returned empty-handed they didn’t have anything I said she didn’t inquire further I kept going to the meetings the neurotics lent me books and pamphlets Herzen churn the chef’s key marks I found myself tumbling down a whole new rabbit hole across the river the peter and paul fortress stood stark and gray a symbol of what became of dissenters yet the more the Czar’s secret police cracked down the faster the ideas spread this newfound knowledge led me to my first fight with Natalia like every young lady of quality Natalia did charity work I with her on one visit to bring food to a family of poor peasants sick with typhus Natalia sat by the stove and spooned soup into the youngest child’s mouth her green silk dress spread out on the dirt floor I’m so worried about her she said on the drive back she’s as thin as a twig we’ll bring more food on Sunday every week until they’re all well the earnestness and her black eyes was real but all of a sudden the whole enterprise seemed too frivolous and self-indulgent they’re only sick because they live in that filthy izba I said it’s in a swamp filled with bugs and vermin of course the child got sick but I don’t see you doing anything about that well maybe the lady’s charitable society will see to that next said Natalia it’s one building one family what difference does it make there are millions of families like this in Russia I’m just one person I can’t help everyone said Natalia a twinge of annoyance in her voice they shouldn’t need your help they owe nothing not the house they live in not the land they work if they didn’t have to pay half their harvest to their landlord and rent maybe they’d be able to feed their own children instead of relying on charity baskets Natalia gave me a broad smile Lera she said the peasants are simple people they enjoy a simple life all that responsibility would be too much for them is that what you think of me I demanded that would have been a great moment to storm out of the cab but we weren’t home yet so I had to sit there across from her fixing her with a stern glare to let her know that I was very cross this was hard to keep up eventually Natalia’s mouth twitched and she burst into laughter at my comical expression and then she pointed out something funny that was happening on the other side of the street and the fight blew over like a cloud in the summer sky but I didn’t forget what she said about the peasants the memory nibble at the back of my mind during the next meeting the young neurotic was speaking again they break their backs in the field and where does the money go to the gentry so their wives can have gold brooches and silk ribbons on their hats there is no creature in the world as silly and vapid as a woman of fine birth all they know how to do is spend money they never lifted a finger to earn I was terrified of drawing attention to myself but his words needled me until I couldn’t stand it I put my hand up and before I knew what I was doing I called out what do you expect them to do go out and get jobs in the civil service instant uproar many people laughed at the idea of women in the civil service while several pointed out that they could hardly do a worse job the young neurotic tried to quiet the room women would be ill-equipped to serve in the civil service and anyway they wouldn’t want to they have no education and how is that our fault I demanded if women are silly and vapid it’s because society made us that way we have hardly any schools and they only teach dancing and drawing we aren’t allowed in the universities why are we to blame for the opportunities we’ve been denied don’t blame society because your sex has a different temperament said the young neurotic that’s the same thing the ability says about the peasants half the crowd jumped to their feet and was accosted by the other half there was no hope of calling the room to order afterwards as I elbowed my way out through the press of coats the young neurotic sidled up to me you’re a sharp one he said you have clever ideas wrong is it happens but clever my apologies my words were unforgivable rude and ignorant it’s more what I was hoping you’d say I replied raising my chin and doing my best imitation of Natalia dealing with an unwanted suitor he shrugged rude is a social construct the words are either true or they’re false if you want to claim they’re false prove it I shouldn’t have let him go to me but it couldn’t bear to let him throw my own inaction back in my face so I asked what do you want deliver this he said slipping a thin sealed letter into my hand leave it at the greenhouse on Gorski Street across from the tea shop so I’m your delivery girl now I said no said the young neurotic you might become our delivery girl if we decide we trust you I glared at him but took the letter fear flitted in my mind as I slipped the letter under the door of the green house a half expected bizarre secret police to spring out of the bushes and arrest me but nothing happened when I reported back to the young neurotic he didn’t thank me he gave me another letter in time he entrusted me with more bribing the Jean d’Armes typesetting newspapers I began to see the contours of the neurotic movement one of Natalia’s lesson books had a cutaway drawing of the earth from the surface of the earth the stone crust was all you could see but when you sliced it open you found that the crust was only a thin layer underneath it was the mantle and beneath that the core where the heat was so great that iron was a liquid Russian society was like that the gentry rose above all like lofty mountains seeing and being seen their wealth and leisure was built on Russia’s scant threadbare middle-class poor clerks teachers and secretaries shopkeepers and lesser bureaucrats and below them were the endless millions of peasants they toiled away scarcely seen but if pressure built they could explode like magma pouring from the earth I tried to talk to natalya about these things but it was like catching a butterfly in my bare hands she would agree with everything yet at the end when i proposed your reform she would laugh and tell me not to be ridiculous education for the peasants how would those poor children Tramp miles through the countryside to go to school and who would do their chores in the meantime communal land ownership you can call it communal but someone has to administer it aren’t the gentry best suited for that a parliament like the one in Britain who on earth could think it was a good idea to put the Empire’s Affairs into the hands of a roomful of bickering Russian politicians years past Natalya’s debutante ball came in a swirl of colors and music pigtails and high colored girls dresses gave way to bare shoulders and updos but I kept wearing my black dresses and I kept attending the neurotic meetings and then one day chaos the young neurotic was giving a speech about capital when the door burst open and Jean d’Armes began pouring in the crowd became a herd of panicked animals a burly man knocked me to the ground as he pushed past someone stepped on my hand I struggled to regain my footing before I was trampled shunned arms were everywhere seizing people pushing them to the ground against walls hitting them with batons men or women ringleaders or bystanders it made no difference I saw the young worker with his hands pinned behind his back a gendarme looked straight at me but collared the man next to me and then the Chief of Police was shouting all right shows over everyone go home I stumbled back to Natalia’s house unsure how I had escaped when the newspaper arrived the next morning and Natalia read the headline her eyes immediately flicked on to me 193 anti state agitators arrested propagandists spread unrest foment rebellion among the peasants is this what you’ve been up to she demanded it was just talking I said no one should get thrown in prison for just talking Lera said Natalya quietly what you’re doing it’s dangerous you think I don’t understand because I only care about dresses and dances and young men but revolutions they don’t help people the peasants the workers everyone you say you care about when the Czar sends out the Cossacks they’re the ones who get hurt would you rather let the common people suffer I asked they always suffer Lera no matter who’s in charge that’s just how it is I had no intention of accepting things just as they were I joined the throng as they crowded the snowy square in front of the courthouse for the trial of the 193 their breath made clouds in the air the Jean de armes shoved people aside and clubbed them with rifles to clear a path for the prisoners the young neurotic was thin and ragged but defiant still shone in his eyes as they led him forward I was too far back to hear anything but I felt the anger and unrest that swept through the crowd when the sentences were read out eventually the news trickled back to me five years hard labor in Siberia for one speech the crowd boiled like a kettle someone threw a handful of icy mud at a gendarme it splattered across his brass buttons I found a rock in my hand I threw it unplanned and uh named at the nearest shaandaar it flew past his head now more rocks were in the air so many voices were shouting that their words were unintelligible hoofbeats the Cossacks burst into the square and their sashes and black hats Sabres flashing in the winter Sun the crowd fled in all directions we regrouped a week later a ragtag and Restless group nearly everyone had scrapes and bruises and a few wore bandages on their Sabre cuts I was stunned when someone turned to me and asked well Lera what do we do now I looked around expecting someone else to jump in with the answer but there was no one but me somehow I had become the leader of the neurotics now I was the one giving instructions to fresh-faced young revolutionaries with more passion than understanding count harmonies and arms are on Nevsky Prospekt watch the palace and note when the czar comes and goes go to this construction site and pick up a suitcase full of dynamite from a sympathetic Foreman I had a map of the palace with a red X marking the Tsar’s private dining room the day I found Natalia going through my purse what are you doing I screamed to instinctively angry to think about how guilty my reaction made me sound those are my things Lara asked Natalia watch this you wouldn’t understand I snapped what happened to you there when did you become like this the world made me like this nothing will ever change until we take matters into our own hands but you don’t care because you don’t care about what the people are going through maybe I care about the people in that room said Natalia her cheeks coloring I don’t think you care about the peasants at all you just want to blow something up I started back as though she had slapped me for a long moment we stared at each other Lera said Natalia quietly Clara I’m sorry I know you care you’ve always cared about everything but this I just don’t understand she slipped her arms around my waist and rested her head on my shoulder I shivered at her touch I wish I could explain I said I don’t want this to come between us but it’s something I have to do I know she said I turned and raised my face to hers her lips were like a warm fire in the winter snow we sought each other with furtive urgency clinging to the familiarity of each other’s embrace Natalia’s door banged open her father’s shadow fell over us we sprang apart struggling to reassemble our tangle of frocks and chemises he didn’t speak just strode forward and grabbed me by the arm he dragged me out of the room I stumbled along trying to cover myself with my unbuttoned dress behind me Natalia cried father wait where are you taking her he threw me into the street I landed in the mud I never set foot in the Tanaka house again I stand now on Nevsky Prospekt scarcely two blocks away from the Tanaka house yet I might as well be in a different universe I flicked my eyes from one side of the street to the other a young man and a gray coat meets my eyes black powder on his fingers a student with glasses looks up from his paper there are four men all together waiting for my signal the dining-room plan failed the bomb went off too soon but this plan will not fail I wondered if I would be afraid when this day came but I’m calm the hand holding the handkerchief does not tremble a flash of pink slits through the street like a tropical bird Natalia the feathers on her hat flutter in the wind my heart catches at the sight of her she still has the same effect on me as when we were young she turns and sees me our eyes meet at a glance she knows everything she could have the Jean d’Armes on us in an instant she raises a hand in a white lace glove and gestures to the left the tsar is going down a different Street when I opened my apartment door a month ago and found in Italia there I just stood there and stared at her foolishly half convinced it was a dream only when she rushed into my arms did her familiar warmth convinced me that this was really happening delicately as though I feared she might vanish I returned her embrace how did you find me I managed to stammer I looked everywhere I was sure something terrible had happened to you my father throwing you out just like that I had no idea he would do something so cruel I searched the tenements the alleys and everywhere I went every miserable creature I saw I imagined it was you she drew away from me and looked me in the eye all these years I could look past the suffering because it was abstract even when it was right in front of me but when I thought it was happening to someone I cared about that changed everything I was wrong Lera I’m ready to act I clutched her to me letting my tears stained her hair quietly we slip from nevsky prospekt onto the side street the four young men find their spots together Natalia and I take our place at a vantage point at the end of the street where we can see everything side by side we might not survive the aftermath none of us if we succeed the hammer will fall we’ll be hunted and yet I’m filled with a sense of calm and clarity we’re doing what no one else would do we’re giving Russia a future a procession of brightly dressed riders emerge around the corner at the north end of the street their plumes nodding proudly behind them comes a gilt carriage decorated with the two-headed Eagle the man in that carriage has never suffered a day in his life he’s about to learn that being chosen by God can’t protect him from the people there’s an imperceptible motion on the street as the four men reach for the bombs in their pockets as the carriage approaches I look at Natalia she nods I dropped the handkerchief I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please rate it and subscribe on iTunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on Facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]