Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 37e - “The Black Handkerchief” by Gwen C. Katz - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/08/31 - listen here)
One thing I look for when choosing stories for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s fiction series is stories where the fact of women loving each other is taken for granted and situated among all the other conflicts, joys, and adventures of life. Such stories can involve drama, tragedy, and danger without those things being focused around the characters’ sexuality.
Gwen C. 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, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals.” Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, was a 2017 Junior Library Guild Selection. She’s on Twitter as @gwenckatz and her website is gwenckatz.com.
Our narrator today is Lara Zielinsky. Lara 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 @lczielinsky and on facebook as AuthorLaraZielinsky.
The Black Handkerchief
Gwen C. Katz
St. Petersburg, 1881
I’m standing on Nevsky Prospekt, holding a black handkerchief.
The passersby 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.
Natalya didn’t understand it. She wore gowns of pink or yellow, airy with lace. Fairylike.
Fairylike 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 Natalya appeared on the stairs. When she saw me, 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 Natalya’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 parlor 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 bird’s figure. Natalya’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, that they contained spare bedspreads. Natalya 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 strayed onto the table or I reached for my fork before the adults did, I was in for a rap on the knuckles. We saw Natalya’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 Natalya. 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 Natalya’s birthday blending together in a swirl of colors. It was before one of these occasions that Natalya’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 Natalya.
Natalya 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.
Natalya frowned. “You don’t understand. You can pick any of them.”
“I pick this one,” I said.
At the party, Natalya 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 Natalya’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.
Was it the night of the storm?
Natalya 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 a dear. In reality she wasn’t afraid of anything.
Which was how I knew, when I woke up and found her curled up and shaking, that it wasn’t the lightning.
It was the night of her fourteenth birthday and the weather had been wretched all day. There had been a party, of course, and a crowd of family friends told Natalya 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 awake and 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 gaslight at night before we rushed into each other’s 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.
The Tanakas 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. Natalya 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 in the misery of economic servitude, all so-called reforms and even so-called political revolutions of a seeming proletarian character, will avail them nothing,” I read to Natalya. “They are condemned to live in a forced ignorance and to accept a slave status by the economic Organization of wage-slave society.”
Natalya 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 Natalya 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.
Natalya was sixteen 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’s shop. Journalists and university students and other intelligentsia in shabby winter coats 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. Narodniks. 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.
“Brothers,” said the young Narodnik, “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 Tsar 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 Narodnik’s eyes convinced me that this wasn’t a theoretical discussion.
Back at the house, Natalya 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 enquire further.
I kept going to the meetings. The Narodniks lent me books and pamphlets. Herzen. Chernyshevsky. Marx. 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 Tsar’s secret police cracked down, the faster the ideas spread.
This newfound knowledge led to my first fight with Natalya.
Like every young lady of quality, Natalya did charity work. I went with her on one visit to bring food to a family of poor peasants sick with typhus. Natalya 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 in 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 children got sick. But I don’t see you doing anything about that.”
“Well, maybe the Ladies’ Charitable Society will see to that next,” said Natalya.
“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 Natalya, a twinge of annoyance in her voice.
“They shouldn’t need your help. They own 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 in rent, maybe they’d be able to feed their own children instead of relying on charity baskets!”
Natalya 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 Natalya’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 nibbled at the back of my mind during the next meeting. The young Narodnik was speaking again.
“They break their backs in the fields, 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 Narodnik 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 Narodnik.
“That’s the same thing the nobility 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 Narodnik sidled up to me.
“You’re a sharp one,” he said. “You have clever ideas. Wrong, as it happens, but clever.”
“‘My apologies, my words were unforgivably rude and ignorant’ is more what I was hoping you’d say,” I replied, raising my chin and doing my best imitation of Natalya 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 goad me, but I 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 green house on Gorsky Street across from the tea shop.”
“So I’m your delivery girl now,” I said.
“No,” said the young Narodnik. “You might become our delivery girl if we decide we trust you.”
I glared at him, but took the letter.
Fears flitted in my mind as I slipped the letter under the door of the green house. I half expected the Tsar’s secret police to spring out of the bushes and arrest me. But nothing happened. When I reported back to the young Narodnik, he didn’t thank me. He gave me another letter.
In time, he entrusted me with more. Bribing the gendarmes. Typesetting newspapers. I began to see the contours of the Narodnik movement.
One of Natalya’s lesson books had a cut-away 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 middleclass—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 a 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, and 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 room full of bickering Russian politicians?
Years passed. Natalya’s debutante ball came in a swirl of colors and music. Pigtails and high-collared girls’ dresses gave way to bare shoulders and updos. But I kept wearing my black dresses. And I kept attending the Narodnik meetings.
And then one day, chaos. The young Narodnik was giving a speech about capital when the door burst open and gendarmes 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.
Gendarmes 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, show’s over! Everyone go home!”
I stumbled back to Natalya’s house, unsure how I had escaped.
When the newspaper arrived the next morning and Natalya read the headline, her eyes immediately flicked onto 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 Tsar 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 one hundred ninety three. Their breath made clouds in the air. The gendarmes shoved people aside and clubbed them with rifles to clear a path for the prisoners. The young Narodnik was thin and ragged, but defiance 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 roiled 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 unaimed, at the nearest gendarme. 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 in their sashes and black hats, sabers 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 saber 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 Narodniks.
Now I was the one giving instructions to fresh-faced young revolutionaries with more passion than understanding. Count how many gendarmes are on Nevsky Prospekt. Watch the palace and note when the Tsar 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 Natalya going through my purse.
“What are you doing?” I screamed, too instinctively angry to think about how guilty my reaction made me sound. “Those are my things!”
“Lera,” asked Natalya, “What’s this?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I snapped.
“What happened to you, Lera? 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 Natalya, 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 Natalya quietly, “Lera, 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.
Natalya’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, Natalya 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 flick my eyes from one side of the street to the other. A young man in a gray coat meets my eyes, black powder on his fingers. A student with glasses looks up from his paper. There are four men altogether, 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 flits through the street like a tropical bird. Natalya. 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 gendarmes 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 Natalya 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 convince 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 stain her hair.
Quietly we slip from Nevsky Prospekt onto the side street. The four young men find their spots. Together Natalya 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 a 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 Natalya. She nods.
I drop the handkerchief.
* * *