Helene’s voice echoes in Anatole’s ears, a soft, lilting caress that flows over the heated, swollen bulge of his consciousness and ingrains itself deep within his body, the warmth soothing and soft, like thick, expensive velvet. He can taste her along with a bitter taste that vaguely reeks of blood. He cannot make out her words – they seem to be lost somewhere in the misty beyond that he can no longer reach, somewhere above the surface – but he knows it is her voice by the tone and the tambour, by the intricate, memorized vibration which could only be her and her alone. He had known this vibration from infancy – it was as much a part of him as his own body.
Yet that…that…there is something about that which is painful and makes the hot cotton that he seems to be stuffed with ignite in a painful, blistering flame which leaves scorch marks on his mind. It is almost as though he can no longer trust his body to be a part of him. Why is that? He can not recall. But if it were true, then Helene may be drifting too, not nearly as much an integral part of his world as he could have excepted her to be.
Anatole can not feel her, just hear her voice and it is uncertain where it is coming from – the present world, somewhere beyond his reach, the past or the future. He seems to be floating, her name forming and re-forming in bright shapes which resemble letters – but only sometimes – and echoing, vibrating through the stuffy cotton.
There is no light, just flashes and glimpses. Air seems to exist only as a memory because there is no feeling of it, never enough no matter how much he tries to gulp at it, all attempts to break the surface futile. Almost as though he is a child, tossed into a pond so he could learn to swing, struggling against the waves his own flailing arms and legs create.
Sometimes, Anatole comes to the realization that Helene’s words are not real. In these moments the pin-pricks of light are brighter and the flashes are longer, more like light seeping through the crack of a swaying door than lightning flashes. In these moments, Helene’s voice fades and others take its place. Sometimes, he thinks he knows them too, but they are less significant and no where near as familiar. It is mostly when the air dissipates and the light fades that her voice comes to him, floating through his body to remind him: I’m here, I have always been here, and I am waiting for you.
This is important. Somehow. It must be.
The summer sun was bright and warm overhead, the grass a saturated, almost-painted green. In mid-July the fields of the Kuragin’s country estate were full of long-stemmed grasses and blooming field flowers – daisies and dandelions. Beyond the fields loomed a forest, deep green and shadowy in contrast with the open fields.
Two children wandered through the tall grasses. A girl of ten lead her seven-year-old brother by the hand. Her soft redish-blonde curls were piled atop her pretty head in a simplified imitation of an adult hairstyle. Her dress, still girlishly short, was an off-white cream, matching her brother’s cream britches and white shirt.
In fact, there was much about the two siblings that matched – they had the same crystal-grey eyes, honeysuckle-blonde hair, elegant and expressive facial lines, full lips and classically straight noses. Still a couple of years away from puberty, Helene had not yet developed the feminine curves which would be one of her greatest assets later in life and it was only her dress, long hair and slightly more feminine curve of the chin which distinguished her from her brother. On the other hand, Anatole still grew in jumps and spurts like a child, and was nearly as tall as his sister, yet his wondrous expressions marked him as obviously younger. If it were not for these small differences the two could almost be mistaken for identical twins.
Anatole broke away from his sister and ran through the grass, laughing carelessly, chasing a blue-and-white butterfly as it fluttered among the flowers. He triped over his own feet and landed with an “oomf” in the dirt. The butterfly fluttered away to land atop a bright purple flower. It balanced there, soaking up the sun, unaware that its pursuer was still watching it from his prone position on the ground.
On reaching him, Helene hesitated, knowing she would be scolded if she got grass or dirt stains on her dress. Finally, however, she sanks down beside Anatole and watched the butterfly intently.
“What are you doing?” she whispered after a moment.
“Watching. Look.” He pointed at a ladybug crawling up the same stem that the butterfly occupies. “Do you think they’ll fight over it?”
“That’s silly,” Helene huffed. “Besides, the butterfly is bigger. Obviously it would win.”
Anatole rolled over on his back and looked up at his sister. “You’re bigger than me. Not by much, by the way,” – he smirked – “but you are.”
“And when we play, I usually win.”
Anatole huffed petulantly. “Do not.”
“Do not!” He reached up and wound both arms around Helene’s waist, pulling her down on top of him. She tumbled from her sitting position with a squawk of protest, then buried both hands in Anatole’s sides and tickled him.
Soon they were rolling in the grass, laughing loudly, scarring away the ladybugs and butterflies, only to be chided later by their governess and tutor and rushed off to change before their parents saw what they have done.
Later that night, after tea, Anatole pulled Helene out through the back door, lead her down the terrace steps and out of the way of the beams of light falling from the windows of the manor house. He picked a dandelion and showed it to her. “Look.”
Helene, still upset over the scolding they had gotten earlier, was in a sour mood and somewhat disinterested in her brother’s vague, sometimes childishly poetic observations. “What? It is a flower.”
“But look.” He held it up further away from himself and the white, weightless seed head caught the light from the house and begun to slowly glitter like stars in a black, countryside sky. In that light it looked almost magical. “It’s known that you can make a wish on a dandelion.”
Helene pursed her lips, watching the sparkling flower. It was hypnotizing and the hopeful, enchanted way that Anatole was looking at it was both amusing and convincing. “It’s no better to wish on a flower than to tell one’s fortune on one. The same sort of foolishness as they talk about with daisies. You’ve been spying and eavesdropping on the maids again, haven’t you?”
“No!” Anatole flushed prettily. That was the word that came to Helene then: prettily. It was a silly world to use for a boy, no less one’s brother, but it was the one that came to her. “Well, maybe it is foolish but what of it? Maybe it isn’t foolish at all? It cannot hurt to try can it?”
Helene shruged. “I suppose.”
Above them, the sky was clear and a large, white-blue moon had arisen, throwing long shadows on the garden and painting the bushes and nearly trimmed hedges a ghostly blue. But in the distance, over the forest, dark, thick clouds had started to gather. The warm, midsummer wind blew in gusts and very far off, the horizon lit up from time to time with the markings of a storm. There was no thunder yet, but Helene was certain it would come within a few hours when everyone had already fallen deeply into sleep.
“Do you want to wish for something?”
“I heard Mama and Papa talking earlier. About our cousin Elizabeth, the one that’s all grown up,” Anatole said, still watching his dandelion and not answering her question.
“What about her?”
“She got married and moved away with her husband. Far away – Novosibirsk. She will probably only see her family on holidays. Well she had sisters and a brother and she left them behind.”
Helene blinked at him. “I suppose that is how it works. What are you on about, Toto?”
He looked at her with wide, childish, almost pleading eyes, as though wanting to communicate something but fearing that she would not understand. “I want to wish for you to never leave me behind. I want us to have many-many more summers together, summers that would never end. I want to wish for…for us, I suppose.” Anatole smiled shyly at her, obviously awaiting a rebuke.
Helene was baffled, a little awe-struck and a little uncomfortable. She wanted to wave Anatole off, to tell him he was being silly, because she feared the same thing – that they would grow up and grow apart. She feared that their difference in age, gender and social expectations would limit them and prevent them from carrying on as they are now, that their friendship would be victimized by the adult world as much as they may fight against it. She has already seen it with Hippolyte. She had never been as close to her older brother, although their age difference was slightly less than her age difference with Anatole, but Hippolyte’s temperament had never allowed for the same closeness to develop. At thirteen, he already took himself far too seriously and from time to time found it appropriate to lecture Helene about how she would soon have to put aside her and Anatole’s childish escapades and become “a lady.” She fumed and raged internally at this presumptuousness even though she was starting to understand that he was right. Somewhere in the distance, the first wave of thunder rumbled grumpily and a chilly gust of wind swayed the trees and made the garden gate creek. “Go on then. Make your wish.” Her voice was just a tad hoarse to her ears.
Anatole beamed and held the dandelion to the light again. He closes his eyes briefly, making his wish, then opened them and blew gently at the flower. The seed head exploded silently, sending tufts of white puff spiraling through the night air. Whenever they caught the light from the house, they seemed to become transparent. As the last bits of the flower disappeared, another wave of thunder – louder now – rolled across the sky, the lightning whitewashing both their faces.
“We should go inside before we’re caught,” Anatole said, sensible for once, a little more sober. He turned to leave.
Before he could go, Helene grabed his hand and made him turn back around. “I’m not Elizabeth.”
He smiled vaguely. “I know.”
Anatole is still floating. He cannot say for how long he has been this way. Time does not exist here – wherever “here” is, which is something he cannot be sure of – therefore he must only assume that it has been awhile. These thoughts are not conscious, unformed, they float in a similar way, coming in and out of focus like letters through the blurry, fogged up lenses of glasses or streetlights caught in a thick morning mist.
Warmth swells to heat, which then crashes into chills. He is unable to break above the surface, to understand what is happening. Helene’s voice has faded and he tries to find it again, searching for it in the stuffy darkness. He needs to find her because she had been there, he knows that, but now her voice has gone and he can no longer hear it.
There is also pain, ripping at some lower part of him. It takes a while for his amorphous consciousness to name the tearing, stinging, bruising sensation that pulses from bellow and over him, sinking deeper and deeper, finding him even when he retreats further back into the dark. Sometimes, it is almost like the pain is not happening to him at all but he is witnessing it, watching it from a place far away, but when he is closer to the surface to attacks him with a wild vengeance.
He wants to cry out for her, to reach for her, find her, summon her. But she is not there, he is certain. She has gone or had never been there at all but she must be somewhere and if he could only break the surface, to scream her name, she would surely come.
He tries but nothing comes and the silence seems to drain the light and air. And, thankfully, the pain as well.
Puberty came like a hurricane, destroying everything in its way and necessitating a rebuilding. Anatole was suddenly extremely aware of his own body and of the bodies of others and the way it responded to things. Illustrations in books and classical art which used to be merely for boring learning purposes before suddenly began to excite him, to make certain parts of his body responded drastically and in completely new ways. He suddenly saw other people in his life very differently and with very different expectations. Certain social norms which seemed alien and strange before suddenly made sense and eavesdropping on the stairs by the maids’ rooms turned into spying because looking was far more interesting than listening.
What he had not expected was that this change would affect him and Helene. He had seen his sister as something completely different from the rest of the world, something separate and belonging only to him. Her long skirts had baffled him when she first began wearing them but it was only after his own changes that he suddenly began to realize what they means and what their significance was. Anatole had thought that Helene would always stay simply Helene, but she changed and those changes suddenly meant something.
Her breasts and hips drew his eyes and he sometimes woke up in the middle of the night after dreaming of a woman who looked just like her. He wondered what her body might look like under those layers of silks and muslins. After coming out into society, Helene began to attend balls and salons. She began to dress in a way which accentuated her womanly curves. Anatole could feel the waves of heat rise up in his body when he looked at her the way they did when he looked at any young woman with a developed shape.
He tried to control these impulses because he understood them to be embarrassing. But it was difficult when there was no one he could really turn to, no one to help him sort out the confusion which was happening within him. So Anatole dealt as he could, exploring his own body, finding a way to relieve his taunt member when needed, and borrowing elicit and explicit books from older friends, which he read with great trepidation and excitement whenever he thought he would not be disturbed, which was not too often.
Along with his changed perspective on his sister and her body, there was another thing which bothered Anatole far more. It was the changing relationship between them and between her and other boys – or young men, as she had begun to call them – who were closer to her age. Helene went to balls and when she came back she was full of stories of young men and the attentions they paid her. She began to involve herself more with these men and they often came to visit her.
Anatole hated to admit it but he was jealous. He was jealous of the time his sister dedicated to these men and the attention she seemed to pay them. She seemed to take them so much more seriously. Anatole tried, foolishly, to engage her in their previous antics, but Helene explained again and again that it was not proper and that she could no longer… and that he would understand later.
All Anatole understood was that a tight ball of hurt and anger curled up in his chest every time he looked at Helene with one of her beaus. They were so much older than Anatole and they, apparently, “understood.” He felt like she no longer loved him enough and that she and these new interests of hers were on some unreachable level, that they were perfectly settled into their adult identities while Anatole remained an awkward, blushing adolescent who felt his body respond to every flash of cleavage and display of sexuality.
One night, Anatole waited until his tutor was asleep and crept into Helene’s room. She was awake but undressed, already in her dressing gown. Her hair fell over her shoulders, the tips brushing against the cleavage of her gown where two mounds rose to indicate her breasts. She looked up at the click of the closing door and gave him a questioning look. “Anatole? What are you doing?”
“I have to ask you something important,” he said, embarrassed and uncertain but resolute that he would do this. “Could you…show me what is under your dress? …well, um, dressing gown.”
She looked at him, somewhat horrified by the implication, the blush rising in her cheeks. “You’re mad. Go to bed, Anatole.” She stood and walked over to him, watching him closely.
“No, I won’t go,” he complained, sounding childish to his own ears but refusing to leave.
“Anatole. This is silly—“
“It’s such a mystery and yet no mystery at all and…every time I see you in those ball gowns you look…you…I want to know…you’re the only one I can trust in this and I want to know something all of your suitors do not and—“ He broke off, his eyes skittish, the embarrassment and stubbornness fighting each other.
Helene watched him with amazement in her eyes. “Are you…? Mon Dieu! Tu es jaloux.” Her eyes softened and she took another step to stand directly in front of him. “Toto, c'est idiot. You are my brother. You know far more of my secrets than anyone in the world. My undressing will not help this.”
Anatole pouted. “I want to see you. It’s just…I want to know all these things and you’re the only person I can trust to show me. All these young men who come to see you, they all seem to know something I don’t. I want to know.” At fourteen, he was as tall as she and his voice had already broken. Still just a boy, Anatole yearned to know all those forbidden things that his sister knew. He yearned to be one with her as they were in childhood and he wanted – desperately – to break all the barriers that had at some point grown between them.
Helene took his hands in hers. “I do not have to undress for that. I do not undress for them. I hope you do not assume that.” She looked at him sternly and Anatole wilted slightly on instinct.
She leaned forward and kissed his lips. It was a very gentle, chaste kiss but Anatole felt like air had been breathed into him. He pressed himself forward, pushing his body against hers and wrapping his arms around her. She leaned back and looked at him. “Very little difference there. I kiss you too.”
“On the cheek. It’s not the same.”
“You’re my brother, neither is that.”
“This is better. And as your brother, I should get the better kiss.” He smirked up at her, watching her through his eyelashes.
Helene raised a delicate eyebrow up at him. “Oh?” She kissed him again, just as innocently. She found this game of his amusing. Perhaps, she should have known better but it seemed to reassure Anatole, so Helene figured it would not cause harm. She liked kissing him, after all. Kissing her favorite brother felt so much better than even the mere thought of kissing one of her dull, useless suitors. She and Anatole were so alike, so close, it made so much more sense. She wondered if perhaps they could gain something mutual from this game. Helene was no better versed in the male form than her brother in the female, but Anatole’s significantly younger age made her uncertain. Somehow, the fact that he was her brother did not bother her nearly as much.
They stood with their arms around each other, slipping sometimes to explore the clothed forms of each other’s bodies from time to time, lips pressed together. The opening of the door behind them startled the pair of siblings but instead of jumping apart, they nearly pressed closer to one another. Helene slowly turned her head to the side to encounter her governess’ shocked, wide eyes. Helene looked down at her dressing gown sitting askew and slightly open on her shoulders and Anatole’s obvious erection, visible through the thin fabric of his sleeping clothes. She could feel it pressing warmly against her leg just as she could feel the matron’s reproachful gaze on her neck.
Anatole, embarrassed at being discovered, but must less observant than his sister, pressed closer into Helene, hoping that she could save him from a scolding for being out of bed. Yet no scolding followed – he was merely pride away from his sister and firmly sent to bed. What did follow was the whispered scandal of the next day. Papa and Maman talked of something all day in hushed, disturbed voices. Helene was called into their father’s study after which she went directly to her room and refused to open the door, even when Anatole begged her to. Later that night, his father came to inform Anatole that he would be leaving by the end of the week for Moscow to live with some relatives. His tutor would go with him and some famous Moscow tutors would be commissioned for him and his cousins.
“For how long will I be gone?” he asked, watching his father’s face with anxious anticipation, trying to read his expression in the faint glow of a single candle.
“Some time,” Vasili Kuragin replied vaguely. “Your mother and I have decided that it would be a good experience for you to be away from…your usual surroundings for some time.”
Some time turned into nearly four years in which Anatole saw his family rarely and at random. And he never saw Helene. It was also in Moscow where he met Theodore Dolokhov who quickly became the sort of older brother that Anatole never had in Hippolyte and the best friend he could always confide in. For the first time in his life, Anatole had someone else to be completely open with except his sister.
It didn’t change the fact that he and Helene wrote to each other all the time only to have their parents confiscate the letters.
“Hush, lay still, come on.” For the first time for what seems like ages, Anatole can make out words. They are real, clear sounds that make relative sense. They have real meaning, although that meaning escapes him from time to time. He complies with the commanding, if gentle tone, and allows his body to relax. The pain is much stronger than before and Anatole can actually feel his body. Opening his eyes proves impossible as the small amount of light that hits his eyes makes him wince and instantly retreat back into blackness. That blackness is murky and unsettled, his head swims through the thick, dark smoke behind his eyelids but he knows he’s broken the surface.
The sensation of being stuffed with cotton is gone, but now every inch of his skin seems to be on fire. A cool cloth over his forehead helps him take in air, providing a small respite from the fire consuming him. Anatole still cannot recall where he is and why he is there. He had gone searching for Helene’s voice and ended up here. But the words had not been hers.
“Good. Now be still. The less you move around the better.”
Theodore. It must be. Anatole tries to speak but finds his lips pressed against a cool, metal strip.
He obeys, again, with little understand what he is doing. The cool water slides down his throat and the fire around him retreats just a little more. All of his senses are distorted and hyper-alert. Anatole can feel the scratchiness of the cloth against his skin, can taste the echo of blood in his mouth, see yellow light through his eyelids which feels much brighter than candlelight has any right to be. He can hear Theodore’s words, his voice familiar and soothing. But his mind is too sluggish to put these things together.
Anatole tries to say something, anything. Speaking is difficult both because he cannot quite remember how to do it and because his voice will not cooperate with him. “Helene,” he manages finally, his own voice sounding hoarse and alien to his ears. It seems to be echoing, coming from a distance, vibrating deep inside him and escaping through a crack.
A sigh is his response, drifting to him through a fog. “I was hoping that you’re no longer delirious.”
“Not…my sister…where?” It is hard to form full sentences. It is even harder to form words. The entire world exists in darkness and distorted, bright shapes that dance behind his eyes. Anatole gulps for air – there’s never enough of it lately.
“Ah, so you are conscious. You’ve been calling for her, you know. Helene’s in Petersburg. I’d take you there but there’s no time. Besides, you shouldn’t be traveling now.”
Anatole is drifting again, falling into blackness, drowning in the fire. He wants to stay to understand what is going on. He wants to reach out and shake Theodore by the shoulders, tell him that this is a mistake that he has to find his sister. Something is very wrong, Anatole knows that. He is pulled away into the darkness again, falling backwards in freefall.
Theodore’s voice chases him in a wispy whisper. “Go back to sleep, Toto.”
When Anatole finally saw Helene again, everything was very different.
He was eighteen, all grown up and completely aware of all the scandalous things that had been exciting, new and strange for him before. She was a woman grown, the rising star of Petersburg society, famous for her beauty and social tact. When he was still in Moscow, Anatole felt like society knew more about his sister than he did these days. It was upsetting, but some of the childish petulance and jealousy had gone out of the feeling.
When they reunited, Helene running down the long, curving staircase, him picking her up and spinning her around, there was a freedom in that reunion. It felt like they were children again, instead of awkward teenagers, still afraid of their own bodies and the things that were happening to them. For a while, everything seemed to be as it were.
Helene was beautiful, more beautiful than any woman Anatole had ever met and lately he had been meeting a lot of those. He was a dashing young officer, rich and titled which meant that the most charming young maidens were lining up to dance and socialize with him.
For the most part, Anatole found them vapid and insincere. He preferred actresses and gypsies. These were easy women without prejudices. Their loud, rowdy, randy officer lot, after drinking themselves into oblivion, would head out for the gypsy camps late at night and dance to gay, folk music until they fell into bed with one girl or another before the coming of the dawn. It was never love, but the sex was good.
Anatole’s father was beginning to pressure him about starting the search for a bride. “You’re still very young and there is plenty of time but this sort of affair, to be done properly, must be handled with care and can take time,” Vasili lectured him son.
Anatole nodded and thought that he could not imagine himself being tied to a wife. He could no more imagine himself married to a presumptuous, simpering little princess or countess than to a gypsy. Flirting was one thing, but marriage was such a binding affair that he would hate it to be dull. Anatole was certain that his father would finally find a bride for him and he would be married regardless of his opinion on the matter, so Anatole left the bride search to his father and continued to gallivant around Petersburg with his friends.
The only woman Anatole trusted and found a true friend in was, as always, Helene. They still locked themselves up in her bedroom to gossip and giggle like small children. He flaunted before her all of his numerous conquests and she shared with him the amusing tales of her suitors and asked him to pick which one he thought she would be able to stand more easily if they were to be married.
“I can’t imagine you being married to anyone, really,” Anatole said one night, perched on Helene’s bed, swinging his legs mindlessly.
She turned from her place at the window to look at him. “I must though. Besides, do you think I would make a bad wife?”
Anatole laughed. “Depends on what you define as a bad or good wife. You would make the perfect wife for me.”
Her shoulders tensed, eyes misting over. “You’re silly,” she murmured. “We’re nothing alike.”
“Which is probably a good thing,” Anatole pointed out. He rose and went to stand before her. Finally, he was taller than her. Much taller, so that she could easily rest her chin on his shoulder. “You’re everything I’d want in a woman. Beautiful, smart, unconstrained by prejudices, the same sense of humor as me. And you love me. You’re the best of all women.”
Helene closed her eyes, humming softly, one hand running down Anatole’s chest, slipping her hand into his. “Too bad we’re brother and sister then.”
Anatole dropped his head to bury his nose in her hair. It smelled vaguely of her French perfume and he breathed in the fragrance, allowing her scent to fill him. “Too bad.” His body ached, he realized, ached to touch her, to run his hands over the cure of her hips, to feel her warmth. He wanted her much like he wanted any woman. But Anatole was no longer a young boy, his mind so unused to lust that he could not distinguish when the feeling was right or wrong. He was no longer fourteen and he understood that he and Helene had been separated for the very reason that what they had wanted, what they had tried all those years ago was inappropriate. He ought not to have felt this way about his sister, should not have had those desires.
Yet, in the following nights, Anatole woke again and again after dreaming of Helene – now he knew for certain it was her. In these dreams she was always naked, always pliant under him like a gypsy might be. Yet, in the end, she was so much more graceful and pure. He always had to win her; she never gave herself like a common whore. Even to him, though she loved him, he was certain. He dreamt of his hands in her hair, on her breasts, inside her with her wetness soaking his hand. He dreamt of her lips on his and her nails raking down his back and rubbing his member. He dreamt of entering her and how she would scream his name when she came again and again. He saw her feverish eyes and felt her hot breath against his ear. And she whispered that she loved him and only him, loved him more than any other man in the world.
Every time after these dreams, Anatole awoke to find himself painfully erect and when he dealt with his treacherous member, he tried to think of any woman but his sister, yet it was always her name on his lips when he came.
Helene married two years later.
Their father was delighted with the match and Helene had somehow, instinctively, understood their father’s desire. The man chosen was Pierre, whom Anatole had befriended quickly when he first appeared in their house, not so much as a suitor as Vasili Kuragin’s charity case. Of course, that was before Count Bezukhov died and Pierre become the most desired bachelor in all of society.
Helene had been resigned and Anatole had felt a dull sort of estrangement from Pierre when Helene walked down the aisle to him. It was an ache, a knowledge that he could never be in Pierre’s place even though he longed to be, no matter if that was natural or unnatural. But Helene did not love her husband, and Anatole’s jealousy was more envy and he comforted himself with the thought that at least he was still the most important man in Helene’s life. It wasn’t fair but Anatole could not help himself. As it was, the worst was still ahead.
“You can’t do this to me.” Anatole leaned against the closed door of Helene’s room and crossed his arms over his chest, mildly aware that he must resemble an impudent child in that moment.
“Do what?” Helene took out the last of her hairpins and sank down on the bed, leaning back on her hands and giving him an impervious look. There was challenge in her eyes and Anatole felt his insides curl.
“Out of all the men there! Out of all the men! It had to be him. You just had to choose him!”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Anatole.” She gave him a reproachful look and the boy wilted. “I don’t understand why you are so upset. He is your best friend; I would think you would trust him with me more than anyone else.”
“I would, but—but…” Anatole spluttered. How could he explain to Helene that seeing her with other men was killing him? It was one thing when he knew it was an act, but this was not an act. Anatole had seen the way she had danced with Theodore at the ball, had seen the expression on her face when they first met, when he kissed her hand. They could talk for hours of nothing and of everything, sometimes to Anatole’s complete exclusion and it bothered him. “You already have a husband, isn’t that enough?” He looked at her pleadingly. Surely, she had to feel what he felt – he had seen it before in her eyes.
“A husband whom I do not love,” Helene scoffed. “Would it not be natural for me to take a lover?”
“So you love him?”
“I—“ She faltered, catching on to his expression and tone. Helene dropped her eyes, her eyelids flickered momentarily, she seemed lost in thought for a moment. “I like him well. He’s hard to dislike.”
“I’m not enough for you,” Anatole stated bleakly, not bothering to make the sentiment a question. She had never let him come too close, had never allowed them to cross a certain line. Sometimes, he wondered if she even wanted to or if she merely indulged him.
“You don’t understand—“
“Of course I do; what is there to not—“
“No, you don’t.” She tossed her head and sprang from the bed. In a few brief steps she crossed the room and pulled him away from the door. She tried to pull away, but he held her and allowed his hands to rest on her waist as hers found his forearms. “We cannot do this, Anatole. We were kids before, but now…can you imagine the scandal? It was a scandal even then, but now—“
“I don’t care.”
“You should,” she snapped, coldly enough for him to withdraw a step. “If not for your sake, then mine. My reputation is my currency in this society. Affair rumors are one thing, incest…” She gave him a long hard look. When she spoke again, her tone was softer, almost pleading. “You will always be infinitely dear to me, Toto. But we have to move on from…whatever this is. Your friend Dolokhov is a good man, you’ve said so yourself. I enjoy his company. I am a woman who is caught in a lucrative but unhappy marriage. Sometimes, I just need someone to take care of my…needs. I’m certain you are far from celibate.”
Anatole flushed. She was right, of course. About everything. But the thought of her in another man’s arms, the thought of her wanting to be there made him want to grab a dueling pistol and shoot the bastard. Certainly, Teddy Dolokhov was handsome and clever, the life of the party and very easy to fall in love with. But he was also Anatole’s best friend and probably the only true friend he had. He did not want to hate Theodore but it was nearly impossible when he thought of him and Helene together. This was infinitely worse than her wedding to Pierre. “Alright,” he said finally, dejectedly. “If a man would make you happy…I want you to be happy…but do me a favor.”
She nodded expectantly when he faltered.
“Not him. Not Theodore.”
Helene rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Why in the world not?”
“I don’t care who it is, as long as he treats you well,” Anatole continued, ignoring her question. “Just not Theodore. You can’t do that to me.”
“I don’t understand. Is this your way of coaxing me out of having an affair?”
“No, it’s…” Anatole took her hands and squeezed them tightly, willing her to understand. “When I think of you loving another man…when I think of you together, in bed…I want to shoot him, I want to…I hate whoever it is that you would chose over me—“
“No, listen. I don’t care if it’s irrational, but I can’t stand the thought of you with anyone else. We’ve avoided talking about this for over two years but I have to say it now. Please…he’s my best friend. Don’t make me hate him.”
“You’re a selfish bastard.”
“Maybe. Would you hate me for it?”
“I—no—I…” She faltered and bit her lip and untangled herself out of his embrace, pulling her hands away. Helene paced to her bed and sat back down. She ran a hand through her curls, thinking. Finally, she looked up. “I will not sleep with him. But don’t presume to deprive me of his friendship. That is my plea, Toto. I could use a friend when you’re not around. I don’t have many of those. But, I promise you, I will not be his lover.”
A wave of relief washed over Anatole and he nodded vigorously, made a move toward her but Helene held up a hand to stop him.
“Goodnight, mon cher. The dancing has exhausted me.”
Anatole felt stung by the unspoken rebuke and the sudden dismissal. But she needed space and pushing her would only make things worse, so he nodded, said goodnight, and left. As he lay awake a half hour later, Anatole wondered if he was truly hurting her by asking this of her. He wondered if his jealousy was about to break the heart of his best friend, someone he really did care about. Unable to answer either question without despising himself or being dishonest, Anatole fell into a restless sleep in which he dreamt of Helene and all the things he would do to her if she would only let him.
The searing jolts of pain come back every time Anatole surfaces. His skin feels as though it’s on fire and his mind has lost the ability to form coherent thoughts. They come in a blurred stream of consciousness and although he can, at times, recognize his surroundings for a room of some sort and objects that have names and meanings, all of this seems quite foreign to him, as though he is in a different world from all the things around him, as though they are from a different, separate life.
He has pieced together enough to understand that Helene is not there with him, although her voice often vibrates through his mind and body. It is merely a phantom, a memory. The flashes of her are hallucinations and every time he indulges in one of those, it is washed away with icy water which makes his overheated skin prickle unpleasantly.
Theodore is beside him, eyes the same sort of worried and worn as Anatole had seen them before, but he cannot remember where. His head is heavy, like a cannonball and Anatole thinks that, perhaps, he had morphed somehow into a shell and the burning sensation is the fuse and that soon, very soon, he will be flying across a battle field, and falling, falling…
But he must be lucid enough to realize that he is shattered. In what way is beyond him, but his instincts all scream that he must have a last chance, a last say. His chances seem to be slipping away and the more he can surface above the dark waves that swallow him again and again, the more he realizes that he, in fact, is drowning and that when he goes under it is in such bursts of forgetfulness that almost he never lingers just below the surface anymore. Theodore looks too worried – Anatole feels this more than comprehends it. Nothing ever goes right when Theodore has that look. And he’s the only one who seems to know how to get to Helene.
“Please…Teddy…take me home.”
“She must…I have to…”
“I can’t take you home, Anatole. You’re hurt.”
“I can’t, mon cher. It would kill you.” There is water at Anatole’s lips and he drinks it eagerly, suddenly aware of just how dry his insides feel. “Go back to sleep.”
Anatole lets himself fall back into the blackness, unable to keep any thought for too long. He feels himself floating away, gingerly, slowly, as though a boy floating naked on his back in a stream which carries him in whichever direction the current will.
Likely, this black river will carry him to Helene. He could never run from her, after all, not even when he tried.
“Why are you doing this?” Theodore asked, leaning against his desk, the accounts they had made, the money and all the travel documents that had finally come through, safely guarded behind his broad back. Anatole could not get to them if he tried.
“Because I love her,” Anatole scoffed, waving off Theodore’s look which was half-curious, half-accusing. He didn’t like it that Theodore never seemed to believe him when he talked about Natasha Rostov in elevated romantic tones. No matter that the girl was lovely and enchanting – Theodore would have to admit to that, even if she was not his sort of woman by far – he still only smiled vaguely and cynically when Anatole spoke of his love for Natasha.
Yet the young Prince did not know how else to go about the affair. Everything in him seemed to demand that he describe his object of affection with as much enthusiasm as he could, as though the more he spoke of her, the more he could convince himself that she was not simply a silly girl who – while enchanting, would probably grow tiresome after a while – but the love of his life.
Anatole had only one such love, but she would never allow them to consummate what they both felt. He could live with that, but he did not particularly like it. He tried to chase other women, even got himself into enough trouble with one to invoke her father’s wrath and end up married. When he felt his desire for Natasha, his hopes were re-ignited. If he could feel strongly about other women, then perhaps his curse was not all-hindering. The idea to elope was not simply prompted by his already existing, though secret, marriage but by the supposition that if he was as far away from Helene, to where he could not see her, talk to her, compare every woman he saw with her, he could be happy with someone else. No matter what Theodore said, they were well suited for one another in temperament. And they both loved someone who would not have them unconditionally – or so Prince Bolkonski’s abandonment of his bride seemed to suggest.
But Anatole could not admit to any of this without admitting that he loved his sister in ways that he should not. Theodore was not one to give away the secrets of people he cared about, but Anatole feared that he may react badly nonetheless and then not only would his own friendship suffer but Helene would suffer too, and that he could not allow.
“You like her, I’ll allow,” Theodore continued, the cynical smirk still flickering on his lips. “But this…Anatole?” He paused and pushed himself off the edge of the desk. Theodore took him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes, making Anatole flush. “Who are you running from?”
“No one! Get off, Teddy.” Fear curled in Anatole’s abdomen. He pushed Theodore away and sprinted for the door, ignoring Dolokhov’s entreaties to come back. He slipped into the starting storm outside, hoping to get lost in the white, fresh snowfall. His eyes stung and his chest felt full of lead, too heavy to bear. There was no one he could tell, no one who could understand.
“You are an idiot.”
Anatole faced his sister with an empty heart and a hollow sensation of failure. The elopement had been sabotaged, Pierre had come to pick a fight and force Anatole to leave Moscow, Dolokhov was unsympathetic and Helene was once again angry with him. He seemed to have a misunderstanding with the entire world and never before had he felt like such a child, lost and confused, too tangled up in his own web of feelings.
“Why don’t you say anything?” Helene fumed.
“What would you like me to say, Helene? You gave me money when I asked for it. You seemed to have little problem with me leaving then.”
“You said you were going abroad, not that you were putting yourself in danger!”
“You hardly bothered to ask where I was going.” The room was far too bright, the early morning sun cascading in through the sheer cream curtains of Helene’s private sitting room.
She deflated and paced to the window, putting both hands over her face and rubbing circles into her temples. “Everyone goes abroad, Anatole. I knew you were flirting with the Rostov girl but I didn’t think you would be foolish enough to try and elope. I thought you just wanted to get away, an end to a flirtation. I would do it.” She shrugged and looked around at him. “Did you truly wish to leave forever?”
“Yes. I think at the time I did. It’s foolish, you and Theodore are right of course. But he does not know the whole story, yet you do. And I…” He trailed off, watching comprehension settle into her features. Anatole watched as a myriad of emotions flickered across her face, not saying anything else. There was hardly anything to say.
“I love you,” she said finally. It was barely above a whisper.
“That hardly means anything.”
“It means everything.” She blinked rapidly, waved a hand at him impatiently and ran from the room like she used to do as a girl, as Anatole had not seen her do since his return to Petersburg after his adolescent exile. Anatole sank onto the sofa and stared blankly at the opposite wall. He was known for being careless and confidant, for loving life and not obsessing over any one thing. This was the only exception but no one knew, because no one could ever know.
Soft footsteps announced Helene’s return to the room. She lingered in the doorway, her eyes burning into his back. “Do you love me, Anatole?”
“I need you to say it,” she blurted out in a rush. “You think this is easy for me, but it is not. It has never been easy, it can never be easy. I need to hear you say it. I don’t mean to hurt you but I need to know…I am—was—angry, I pretended not to care because…because I was jealous. Countess Rostov…is very much your type. No matter what I say, if I was to think you loved any other woman more, why, I would—“
“I love you.” He could feel her smile and the emptiness in his chest was filled up with a bitter grief and angry longing. But then Helene slid up behind him and kissed the top of his head, whispered nonsense in his ear. And Anatole felt like he was ten again with very few cares in the world. If he was angry with her, that could wait.
“Finally, we’ve been waiting for hours.” Theodore’s voice carries to Anatole through a fog. Ever since the last time he went into the blackness everything had begun to chance. He can see shapes and figures now that are not truly there. They seem very real but Theodore walks right through them and insists that Anatole is wrong and there are no such things there. Once, he thought he had spotted Helene. He had tried to reach for her only to be pushed down. The pain that had come with that attempt was so overwhelming that he thought the darkness might reclaim him, but it did not.
He no longer feels pain, or rather, it seems somehow detached from him. His vision is foggy and his head heavy but there is a lucidness to his thoughts that had not been there before. Sometimes he can not speak, his body no longer obeying him, but he can think far more clearly than before. The fire that had consumed him before now became ice and the numbing shivers that wreck his body are taking away most of the other sensations.
“I came when I could. You are not the only gentleman with a wounded officer on hand.”
There are strange hands on his body and more pain, but Anatole does not register most of it. He is floating, sometimes so much that it seems that he is looking at the room from some other perspective than his own.
“There isn’t much I can do,” the newcomer says. A doctor, he must be, Anatole realizes vaguely but the thought is only partially conscious. “I cannot even say if he will make it through the night.”
The words make little sense; they have dissolved into mostly sounds by now. Anatole’s thoughts seem to be completely locked up in his mind, memories and thoughts are the only things he seems to be able to process but not new surroundings and information. When the doctor leaves, Theodore sits beside him and takes his hand. “I’m sorry, Toto.”
Anatole gives his friend a tired, imploring look. He cannot fight the fog forever. It’s harder to resist than the darkness and somehow he knows that once he crosses this bridge, he won’t come back. “Tell Helene…” Anatole tries, but the effort to form actual words, to move, is far too much for him to manage. He licks his lips and tries again, “Tell her…”
Theodore watches him closely, then asks quietly, “That you love her?”
“Yes.” And so much more. But there is no longer time for that.
Helene’s parties always glittered. It had little to do with the lighting and not much to do with the jewelry worn by the ladies of the medals worn by the men. In fact, it did not seem to be any physical attribute at all. Yet there was an atmosphere or youthful, privileged society – regardless of the guests actual age – and an exuberant energy perpetuated by everyone involved but especially the hostess herself.
Anatole allowed that he may be biased in these considerations, for he considered everything Helene did to be marvelous. What he did know, though, was that nowhere else was there such an atmosphere of good fun, masquerading under the guise of highly intellectual conversation. Other such salon parties, such as those of Anna Scherer, were fairly stuffy, forcing everyone into one mold of political insightfulness, without actually allowing anyone to say anything entertaining. Anatole knew that Helene enjoyed them, however, and in her early days of hosting took them for a model, but the product, in the end was much different on her end.
Or perhaps he was drunk.
Anatole lifted the champaign flute to his lips and drank deep, nearly inhaling the stinging, bubbling liquid. That was his fifth drink at least in the past couple of hours that he had been there. Helene had met him and Theodore at the door with a forcefully cheerful smile. She had met Anatole’s eyes and looked away just as quickly, then took Theodore by the hand and led him away to introduce him to one personage of importance or another. Anatole had remained aside. He had little to say at these gatherings as it was, but that night he was in an especially thoughtful mood.
He could feel the letter folded up in his pocket, the one that said, All troops to report. The war has begun. That meant him, that meant that the rumors that had been going around for months were true and Napoleon had finally decided to invade. Fighting itself did not bother Anatole, but leaving her did. Thinking that if he was unfortunate enough, he may never see Helene again. There were so many things undone and unsaid between them that it felt like a bloody shame…
She kept looking around at him, not asking for his participation nor completely able to ignore him. He could not read her look, as she had tucked away all readable emotions far beneath her social mask and Anatole wondered if he had managed to play the role of disinterest even with half the success. He tried to hold her gaze several times, to tell her with a look that he was sorry, that it wasn’t his fault, that he wanted to be alone with her, but she never seemed to respond to his silent propositions. And Anatole was still too much a boy to know how to otherwise get her attention.
But he knew one thing that made the whole ordeal worthwhile: all the revelry was Helene’s way of dealing with something far beyond her to cope with internally. Most women cried when they were upset, most men got drunk or into a fight. But Helene threw parties. The bigger, the better. They kept her mind off things. This one was a spontaneous occurrence, manifesting just after Anatole told her of the letter. Helene was no Lise Bolkonski, she would not tell all of her friends, pitifully, how afraid she was of the war and for those she loved. Instead, she would protect herself from the world with the only way she knew how – with a smile.
He caught her by the hand in the dark corridor between their rooms afterward and pressed his lips to her temple. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“I know,” she breathed out, carefully turning her face away from his.
“I just want to say goodbye. I don’t know if—“
Anatole pulled her around and grabbed both her hands, pressing them against his chest. Helene tried to struggle away but it was useless for he held her tightly. “Listen, listen to how my heart beats. You’ve never gotten caught before, why should you be caught now? And it doesn’t have to continue. I just…I just don’t want to leave and think that we never…Helene, regret is an awful feeling—“
She moved so quickly, in the dark, that Anatole almost missed the movement. She slipped forward like a feisty kitten and pressed herself flush against him. Anatole wrapped his arms around his sister and she pressed her lips to his in probably the most chaste kiss she had given in a long time. Anatole backed up with her still in his arms and pulled them through the door of his room, kicking it shut.
And for all that it was sinful, the consummation of so many years of desire felt more like heaven than like hell.
In the early morning mist, four figures separated from the porch of the Kuragin house. Anatole had already said goodbye to his parents and brother, not wanting to be bothered now in these last few moments by his father’s advice and his mother’s tears, which made him feel guilty and uncomfortable. So the only people with him were Theodore, who was going with him, and Helene.
As Anatole checked that all his things were properly loaded, Helene drew Theodore aside and looked up into his face. “I dare to ask a favor of you, Monsieur Dolokhov. As much as I hope that you will take care and stay safe…I have full confidence in your ability to withstand a fight. But Anatole…this is his first campaign and…he is, I think, still a child. At heart.”
“He’s brave, I have faith in him, countess.”
“Yes, too brave. S'il vous plaît, Monsieur Dolokhov. Vous êtes mon seul vrai ami.. Keep my brother safe.”
“Anatole is my dearest friend, countess. I would give my life for him. But this is war and sometimes…”
“I know, and yet, if you could keep an eye on him…” Helene looked over her shoulder at Anatole and back at Theodore who was watching her closely. His expression softened.
“I will do my best. I promise you.”
Helene meets him at the gate. She’s pale and Theodore has the sense that she didn’t sleep well. Several strands of hair fall out of her bun and frame her face. The weight of Anatole’s scarf and last letter home in the inner pocket of his uniform jacket are a painful reminder of what he must tell her.
“Helene.” Theodore cannot bring to use her title, even if between them it had always held an affectionate teasing tone. But this seems too personal, too intimate, too serious. His conscious whines and protests, he has agonized over the decision to tell her now, himself for many of the long hours of his ride to Petersburg. But he owes it to her, she needs to hear this from him, not a piece of paper.
The Kuragin siblings had loved each other, perhaps too much. Although, Theodore considers, if it had been him, he would have preferred to hear the news from a friend as well. Yet the words don’t form and Theodore simply takes out the scarf and the letter. He watches Helene’s eyes widen as she recognizes the piece of silky fabric and spots the crimson-brown stains on its edges. Her hand goes to her mouth and she looks up into his face, her eyes pleading for him to tell her that she understood wrong.
“This is Anatole’s letter home,” he intoned evenly. “He never got the chance to send it. He wore this under his clothes, even when it was warm. Said it was from you and it reminded him of home.” She watches him and numbly takes the scarf and letter. “Your brother was wounded in battle, he died a hero…” the words are empty, at least they sound empty and hollow to Theodore. He can almost feel whatever there was between them breaking, undoing itself. Anatole had been a constant presence, a binding force between them. Sometimes, Theodore felt as though Anatole did not want him and Helene to be close. Theodore had a suspicion that he was the reason that Helene had initially denied him her bed. And when Anatole had tried to run away with the Rostov girl, Theodore wondered if the boy was running from himself.
But none of that maters now. Anatole is gone and Theodore catches Helene when she faints, barely having opened the letter.
Rainclouds gather above Petersburg. The entire city has just begun to buzz about the defeat at Borodino. Theodore can almost feel the panic building up, as heavy as the thunderclouds.
He had spent the night at the Kuragins but insists on being off. He has no leave and has only banked on the fact that no one would be tracking him down for a while since he managed to get himself transferred into the Cossack partisan bands. Helene, already in mourning, runs out onto the porch, just as the horse is saddled. She grabs his arm and forces him to turn around. “Don’t leave me. Please.” Her voice is almost a whisper and Theodore sees that she has neither slept nor cried. They are alike in this among other things; he understands her. Somehow, that only makes this harder.
“I have to go. Deserting will only get me into trouble.”
“I can’t do this alone,” she admits, not quite meeting his eyes. “The person I love the most is gone; I don’t…I don’t want to lose you as well.” She looks embarrassed, almost ashamed of her weakness. And he had always cared for her far too much.
“Nothing will happen to me.” Thunder whip-cracks in the distance, rolling in a grisly wave across the sky. It’s a bad promise to make, especially after what has already happened. The thunder sounds a bit like distant cannon fire and Theodore holds his breath. He cannot get Anatole’s face out of his mind. How the boy had cried in his delusional, fevered state, how he had called for Helene and how he had asked Theodore, very lucidly, in the very end, to tell her that he loved her.
“You can’t know that,” she whispers desperately, holding on to him. He can see the tears struggling to escape her and can feel his own chest constricting. This is impossible.
“Helene, before he died…I should have told you yesterday, perhaps, but…before he died Anatole asked me to tell you…he had one lucid moment and he told me to tell you that he loves you. I won’t assume to know how he meant it, but he meant it.”
He can see what is left of the color in her face drain away and the tears come of their own accord. She falls into his arms and Theodore catches her as she buries her face into his shoulder. His own exhaustion and grief prevail and they cry together, just as the storm reaches them.
He will not tell her just how much he loved Anatole too. He will not tell her that it was, perhaps, his own jealousy that made the three of them so close and yet so dysfunctional at times. Because none of that has any meaning anymore. “I’ll come back, and we’ll start over.” She nods against his shoulder.
And all their tears are washed away in the rain.