Serendipity - The Little Tailor by Stephanie Burgis
The Little Tailor
by Stephanie Burgis
In memory of Moshe Gerschfeld
"He lied," my grandmother says. She throws her whole body into scrubbing the kitchen counter, scrubbing at the marks left by the guests' drinks and food, too much food, food that no one in the family ate. "He lied and lied and lied, to me and everybody else."
"Mama..." My mother's voice is cracked from too much crying. She reaches out to touch Grandma's arm.
Grandma jerks away. "Don't pretend he was normal just because he was your father. You know better than that. The man really thought he lived inside one of those fairy stories Anna collects."
"He told wonderful stories," my mother says. She turns away to stare out the window.
The sky outside is dark. The last of the guests left over an hour ago. It's only the three of us left now in the big house that my grandparents lived in for so long.
Grandma's arm slows in its scrubbing motion, slows and slows until finally she drops the crumpled towel into the sink. Her fingers clench and rise to her face to cover her mouth. A muffled shriek erupts from behind her closed lips.
My mother tries to hug her, but Grandma pushes her away. She grabs my hand. Her long fingernails bite into my skin, and I grit my teeth.
"You know it, Anna. You know the truth. You spent all those hours listening to him last year. You know what he was really like."
I nod, ignoring my mother's pained look. What can I say? "Yes, Grandma," I whisper. "I know."
My grandfather was born in Moscow in 1904. When he told me stories, his accent returned in full force, even though he hadn't lived in Russia since 1920.
"Back in Russia," he would begin, "we once told the story..."
My grandfather, Peter Bulgarin, was always the hero of his own story, and his favourite story, the one he told me at least once a year as my grandmother and my parents sat in the dining room talking politics, was the story of the little tailor who succeeded against all odds.
"Back in Moscow," he would say, "we talked of the man who killed seven in one blow. Seven in one blow, can you imagine, Anna? But there was a catch: these seven mighty warriors just happened to be flies!"
"Yes, flies! But no one knew that part, and do you know what, Anna-Annechka? It didn't matter that he wasn't really the person they thought he was. He didn't need to be. His entire life changed anyway!" His eyes glinted bright blue. "Your life can do that, you know, when you have confidence in yourself. Remember that, darling. Sometimes you just have to give the rest of the world a little push."
His version of the story changed over the years, moving further and further away from the traditional version that I read in books. When I was a child, his tailor fought giants and dragons, using only his cunning to win all his battles. By the time I was eighteen, the giants had disappeared, replaced by enemies more nearly recognizable in the mundane world. Last year, when I recorded hours of his stories for my master's thesis on the Slavic oral tradition, I finally realized that his version of the tailor story was the closest thing to a true history of his life that he would ever disclose to any of us.
But my grandmother had no idea of any of this when she married him.
"He told me his family was noble, back in Russia," Grandma says. "God, the stories that man told. What did I know? He said they had fled after the Revolution, that that was how they had lost all their money." She's sitting on her small, upright chair by the fireplace, across from the big cushioned armchair in the living room, my grandfather's chair, empty now.
My mother is staring into her mug of tea, her hands clenched around it, her whole body hunched. She won't respond to anything Grandma says right now, I can tell. So I'm the one who has to speak.
"When did you find out the truth?"
"The truth?" Grandma laughs, a cracked sound. "What truth? I still don't know what he was back in Russia, what he did." She pauses, takes a breath. "But I found an old passport of his, on the day we returned from our honeymoon. And that was when I realized he wasn't noble. What nobleman is named Rubinski, in any country?"
My mother's head jerks up. "Rubinski?" She must not have heard this story either.
Grandma shrugs. "That's what the men at Ellis Island called him, anyway. By the time I met him, he was calling himself Bulgarin, and you would never guess that he even knew what a synagogue was."
"Did you really believe that he was a nobleman, Grandma?" I ask the question softly, afraid that she'll end the sudden stream of confidences. I've never heard her talk about her marriage before, never seen her break through that shield of privacy.
Grandma's face crumples. "I don't know what I believed," she whispers. "He could make me want to believe him, though. I wanted to believe everything he told me."
"When you're born into poverty, Anna-Annechka, you learn to have a great imagination. How could you survive, otherwise? So our little tailor, our hero, he dreamed. He dreamed all the time, as he struggled to make a living and feed himself, and he dreamed of a better life outside the ghetto. He dreamed all of this as he sat in his cramped little room and mended and sewed, as his stomach grew thinner and thinner, and as his father and uncles worked themselves into early graves, or were cut down by the Tsar's Cossacks or sent off to fight and die in the Tsar's endless wars against the giants and the trolls. What room is there for a dreamer in that world?
"And then one day—remember, our hero is still only a boy, not more than twelve or thirteen years old, and a skinny boy at that, with no more muscles than a chicken, and eyes near-sighted from peering at tiny stitches by candle-light—one day he is sitting in his room stitching a belt together, with his one piece of bread and cheese sitting on the table beside him, and a group of flies starts buzzing all around him until our little tailor thinks he might just go mad from impatience.
"They're all heading for his piece of bread, all trying for this boy's only food, and he's so aggravated and tired, he finally just slams down his arm across all of them on the table! Seven in one blow! It worked! And when our hero sees this, he feels a surge of hope and faith that he hasn't felt in such a long time, Anna, and he decides—why not?—to take a chance. He'll keep this belt for himself, and he'll embroider it with his good fortune. 'Seven in one blow,' it'll say. And whenever people see him, they'll know that he's a hero in disguise, just as he's always hoped to be."
"When I met him," Grandma says, "my father had just given him a position in his company, a very high position. In marketing."
"Of course," my mother murmurs, half-smiling. "Papa could sell anything."
"Of course he could. And if you had seen him back then..." Grandma sighs. "I was sixteen years old, then, and he must have been thirty-four at least. But he was the most handsome man I'd ever met, and his accent...oh, it was beautiful. All the girls were swooning over him, he had so much charm, no one could resist. And when he mentioned his family back in Russia, the palace he'd grown up in, the sledding parties, the dances..."
She snorts. "Well, those were all lies, of course. But he was careful with them. He never pretended to be royal, and he always implied, oh so delicately, that his branch of the family was really more aristocratic than rich. But all of that only added to the charm. And there were rumours all around him, rumours that he was a personal acquaintance of the Roosevelts, rumours that he was a distant cousin of the English king, rumours that he had fought duels back in Russia, rumours that he knew Al Capone." She sighs. "It sounds so silly now, doesn't it? But it seemed quite possible back then."
"Do you think Grandpa was the one who invented all those rumours?"
She surprises me by shaking her head. "No. In the beginning, I'm sure he started a few. But by the time I met him, other people were creating their own stories for him. He was that kind of person. Everyone wanted to explain him, to understand him."
"What happened when you found out he was lying?" I ask. "What did you do?"
Grandma presses her lips together and shakes her head. "Everything changed. How could it not? I realized that I didn't even know him. I was an eighteen-year-old girl, married to a total stranger."
"When you have the reputation of being a hero, the way people look at you changes, Anna. You're given some wonderful chances and some terrible responsibilities. Our little tailor managed to get a ship's ticket to a far-off empire when he was sixteen years old, on the condition that he act as protector for two young girls being sent to their uncle. Weeks on a boat, surrounded by illness, fighting for rations for the children he guarded, keeping their innocence and their purse of money safe from all the rogues on board. At night he lay sleepless on the damp planks, terrified of sea dragons and pirates, spinning stories in his head to distract himself and listening to the cries of the sailors above him.
By the time he finally stepped off the boat, he was half-dead from lack of sleep, but no one had touched his charges or their money, and the other passengers gave him a wide berth. They had all heard the rumours about his skills with the knife, you see, and of the men he had stabbed in their sleep. Seven in one night alone, according to rumour. They regarded our hero with a wary eye, they did. And he only tried to stay awake and wide-eyed and maintain his reputation as a desperate and daring man.
"Once they were off the boat, of course, they still had to wait for weeks to gain approval, for the Emperor's border guards were strict. Inspections, interrogations of the most gruelling sort, and yet more thievery and illness abounded on the island prison where all immigrants were kept, and great silver wolves with eyes like fire patrolled the gates every night.
"But once our hero and his two charges stepped onto true foreign soil, he felt all the exhaustion of the past months drop away. He had arrived. He left behind one name at the island and he assumed a new name as he introduced his charges to their uncle, who poured out gratitude like a fountain.
"'At your service,' our tailor said, with a bow. 'Experienced in all matters, large and small. Here are your nieces, safe and sound, as promised.'
"Their uncle looked at him in amazement. 'But you're only a boy, and a skinny one too. How could you be the man my parents described in their letters?'
"Our hero smiled, and tried to look modest. 'I have something of a reputation,' he said."
"I confronted him," Grandma says. "I waved the passport in his face. There we were in our beautiful new house that my father had bought us as a wedding gift, after the most romantic honeymoon possible, and I was screaming at him like a fishwife. 'Who are you anyway? Who am I married to?' I called him a criminal. And I told him that my father would kill him when he learned the truth. We both knew that that was true."
"Our hero learned the language of the Empire quickly, and he learned how to work his way on the golden streets of the capital city. He learned that while his new fellow citizens loathed poor immigrants, they loved the aristocracy, and they had a weakness for any romance told in a foreign accent.
"He found his first job through the grateful uncle of his charges, who assigned him to fly on the back of an eagle and carry messages back and forth between his business and others. Through these errands, our hero learned the names of many important local sorcerers and merchants, and he was able to acquire their favour. Some of these people were honest, but many were not. Through the latter, he found his second job, as transporter of a magical and forbidden potion that was secretly in high demand.
"It was not an easy position, nor a safe one, and more than once, our hero was in danger of his life from ferocious trolls and goblins. But every time, he looked into the face of death and smiled, and the creatures who confronted him grew afraid. For all of them had heard, by now, of his own magical powers, and of the assassins he had vanquished in his stay on that island prison. Seven fatally cursed with just one spell!
"By the time he was twenty-five, the little tailor felt himself to be ready. He had a bit of money and, even more importantly, he had confidence. So on his twenty-fifth birthday, our tailor took his carefully saved gold and bought a train ticket to one of the largest cities in the Empire, where he settled himself into the most expensive hotel for a one-month stay.
"Our hero was not foolish enough to encroach on the other residents. He ate alone at breakfast, reading the newspaper, he tipped the maids and doormen extravagantly, so that they would remember him and perhaps gossip about him, and he spent his days strolling through the finest shops and cafes in the city. He tipped his hat to the other guests when he saw them, but made no move to approach them.
"He didn't need to.
"On the sixth day of his visit, as he sat alone at his table in the hotel dining room, a middle-aged gentleman approached him.
"'Excuse me, sir,' the man said. 'But you look most familiar. Have I met you before in London or Paris or Ruritania?'
"Our hero frowned in a thoughtful way. 'I'm afraid I don't recall,' he answered, letting his exotic accent roll forth beautifully. 'I've spent so much time travelling since the Revolution, my memory has become quite blurry. Could we have met in Lyonesse, perhaps?'
"And thus he was introduced to the finest society, Anna-Annechka, and a completely new man was born. The little tailor had become deposed royalty without ever having met an aristocrat in his life.
"But sometimes a man can have too much confidence."
"I don't think he believed what had happened at first. How could I possibly see through him, when no one else ever had? He'd been so successful for so long. He didn't know how to handle failure."
"There was a princess, you see. There often is, in a tale of heroes, because heroes are jointly ruled by desire and ambition. She was the daughter of a king, as usual, and, as is not so usual, she was also beautiful and witty and even generally sweet-tempered. How could our hero resist? He had already found favour with her father. He courted the princess with tales of his childhood and with romantic extravagances, and as he exerted himself to please her, he found himself more and more ensnared by her own sweet self.
"So they were married, with great pomp and ceremony, and our little tailor-turned-prince felt himself to be at the pinnacle of his happy ending. But the second day after his wedding, a disaster occurred.
"Our hero talked in his sleep. The princess, lying awake beside him, heard him call for his needles and thread and complain about the poor light for his sewing. And that princess, so wondrous and so disastrously intelligent, put together the pieces of his ramblings and realized that her hero, her prince from a fairy tale, was no more than a common tailor after all, and that she had been deceived. And rage and contempt filled up her beautiful body, and she cried out for revenge."
"First he tried to lie to me," Grandma says. "Oh, God, did he try. He spun one story after another, of mistakes, of confusion, of passports exchanged with random acquaintances... He tried every story he could think of, and you know that man had a tongue of gold. But I wasn't buying any of it, not for an instant, and finally I just had enough. I started to walk out, to leave the house altogether, on my way back to my father, back to reality and a normal life. And he just collapsed."
"Confidence can only carry a man so far, Annechka. And there are times when it can destroy you."
"He just stared at me, completely tongue-tied for maybe the only time in his life. And then he whispered my name. 'Caroline,' he whispered. 'Caroline. Please.' That was all he said. Just, 'please.'"
Grandma shuts her eyes for a moment. When she opens them again, I see tears glimmering, caught on her eyelashes. "'Why?' I said. 'Why should I stay with a man I can't trust? Give me one good reason.'"
"And?" my mother asks. Her voice sounds hoarse. "What did he say?"
"He said, 'Because I love you. And I can be any man you want me to be.'"
"Who can tell what will win the heart of a true princess? Our hero had tried everything, had exerted all his charm, all the appeal he had practiced so carefully over the years, and nothing worked to defuse her rage. And then he gave up entirely on all of his wiles, and he only begged her to stay. For the first time in his life, he felt as low as the most unworthy of souls. What good was all his self-assurance now?
"And then the most amazing thing happened. As the tailor-turned-prince-transformed-into-worm sat helpless on the floor, waiting for her to walk out of his life, his princess turned and looked at him, really looked at him, as no one had ever looked at him before. Deceiver, pretender, upstart that she knew him to be, she looked at him with a cold, clear eye, and, believe it or not, she softened. 'Please,' he said, with a humility he had never felt before that moment. 'Please.'
"His princess walked back across the floor and raised him to his feet before her. And she said, 'I'll give you one more chance.'
"Well, do you know how long that second chance lasted, Annechka?" Grandpa laughed his great rolling laugh and leaned his head back against his cushioned chair. "It lasted the rest of their lives, it did. For our little tailor was a clever man, and he knew what was worth keeping, and worth fighting for."
"Well, what was I going to do?" Grandma reaches up and wipes the tears out of her eyes with a quick flick of her thin fingers. She smiles ruefully. "Did I really want to go back to my father and all of my friends and tell them how I'd been deceived? Did I really want to be pitied that way? Of course not."
My mother shifts in her chair. "Come on, Mama. You know it was more than that. You two were married for fifty-one years. That wasn't just to keep up appearances."
"Who said it was?" Grandma glares at her. "I was just coming to the rest of the story. Don't interrupt."
"Tell us the rest, Grandma." I reach out to touch my mother's shoulder, keeping her quiet.
"Well, that really was how the marriage started, but of course there was more, over the years. How could there not be? We had a child together, for one thing. And..." She sighs. "Well, I never did find out his real history, but as time went on, that just didn't seem to matter anymore. We created our own history."
"So many stories," Grandma says. "Good stories, bad stories—but your grandfather could tell them all so beautifully." She stares at his big empty chair, across from her, and shakes her head. "He never changed his true nature, not really. Even up to the very end. He lied to me about the cancer." She pauses, bites her lip. "How could I have believed him?"
I look at Grandpa's chair and hear his voice inside my head. Maybe I'll always hear it there, telling me stories about his life and my own. I hope it never goes away.
"He just wanted to have the happy ending, Grandma. He wanted the story to end the right way."
Grandma closes her eyes and leans back in her chair. "Oh, Peter," she says. "Crazy man. All that imagination, and he never figured some things out. He always thought he had to be a hero, but all I ever wanted was him.
Stephanie lives in Leeds with her husband Patrick Samphire (see issue 2) and their collie-cross Maya. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Jabberwocky, Aeon and she's one forthcoming in Flytrap. An earlier version of The Little Tailor was originally published in Say... magazine.