No Greater Love
They say that I am an evil woman. An ogre. They say that, ten years ago, I was seized by a jealous rage so powerful that I strangled to death my only daughter. Why shouldn’t they say it? After all, I have never denied the charges that were levelled against me, and neither did I appeal when I was sentenced to life imprisonment. And how they’ve rejoiced, the jackals of the tabloids, to see how ten years of prison life have robbed me of my beauty and left me an old, old woman. You wouldn’t think it, but next year is my fortieth birthday, though it’s true you might mistake me now for a woman of sixty. Sonya would have been twentythree today, if she was alive. If no crime had been committed … but enough of that! Of that they know nothing.
No, it’s not the prison life, as they would have it, that has stolen my youth and greyed my hair. It is not the heavy grind of routine, nor the scorn of the world, nor the faceless, changeless future that has made me so old before my time. No, that honour … (for surely such an honour must be acknowledged, must have its author) … that honour, I say, must go solely to Mikhail Mikhailovitch, whose living hatred has been the bane and the comfort of my life here. His hatred poisons my dreams and defeats my spirit as surely as it has nourished and vindicated me. But you will see. You will see.
It was a wild November evening when I was first presented to Mikhail Mikhailovitch Sirhin. “M. M. Sirhin, pianist”. How modest the card read! Of course he wasn’t famous then, or at least he was unheard of outside the closed circle of the Leningrad Academy, and his defection to the West had been such a low key affair that the national papers had scarcely remarked on it. The first thing that struck me about him on the day we were introduced was his inordinate reserve, his cold haughtiness. This seemed so out of keeping with his cheap, battered shoes and his childish English that I could not restrain myself, and burst out laughing even as I shook hands with him. I was scarcely more than a child myself, and the new piano tutor cut quite a comic figure in our somewhat formal household.
But there was very little that was comic in the life of Mikhail Mikhailovitch. He was a tall man, not unattractive, and there was a remarkable self-assurance in his hard blue eyes. His trousers were scarcely long enough to conceal mismatched socks, and his raincoat had a tear that ran along the collar. Yet he seemed to treat my parents with disdain, and glowered at me whenever I smiled at the frequent mistakes in his English. The fact is, he saw his poverty as an irrelevance, nothing more than a ragged cover drawn over his immense talent, and he grew indignant when others failed to see this. My parents undoubtedly could see it, but I was fourteen years old and to me he was an absurd and amusing newcomer, one whose speech was as ragged as his dress. Each time he fixed his eyes on me, however, I felt my ears burn.
He had at this time been in England for seven months – all this I learned much later – having fled Russia shortly after his wife’s suicide. To this day I know little about her, except that she was originally from Prague, and that she swallowed an entire bottle of bleach when life with her Russian husband in distant Leningrad became too mush for her. I never managed to learn her name, although I occasionally saw her photograph in his wallet. She was dark-eyed, petite, ten years younger than he. I have always imagined, from her dark, sad eyes, that she must have loved him with the same desperation, or desperate isolation, with which he infected me. I know now that it was my own soul that stared silently from the pitch black eyes in his wallet photograph.
I was fourteen, but I was no fool. My mother had forecast I would be a beauty, and though I was young and without experience, I sensed already the fascination that I induced in men. My own cousin, twenty years old and on leave from the army, had stuttered and blushed when he’d tried to talk to me the summer before. Yet how quickly did this clumsy, arrogant man, more than twice my age, gain a hold on my thoughts and a grip on my heart which has never since eased off. From the first he was a tyrant, staring coldly from indecipherable, northern eyes and demanding an impossible perfection. And how his self-belief dwarfed my own, searing it until I could no longer bear the sight of a music score, much less give life to one on a grand piano. Finally he broke me, but by that time I was already his lover, and five months pregnant.
His monstrous self-sufficiency became even more entrenched as the years passed and recognition was afforded him by the world (make no mistake, his talent is remarkable and even now has only been partly revealed or understood). But it would have been so much easier for me if he mistreated me; I could have put up with that joyfully, if only he would have let me matter to him. If only he would have acknowledged that I ever existed for him. Perhaps he loved me in his own way, if Mikhail Mikhailovitch were ever able to feel love, but he certainly never needed me, this man whose life was all that I lived for.
But I am being unfair. He always loved Sonya. From the first day I’d told him that I was pregnant with his child, I slowly faded and ceased to exist for him, but here was life, here was the thing itself. He took an interest in her from that moment right up to the day that they found her strangled in our home, and had watched her with that same intense, searing gaze that he had once, so long ago, turned on me. It was the gaze with which he had long ago forged the hard perfection of his own talent, and which would in turn bring Sonya Mikhailovna to perfection. And for Mikhail Mikhailovitch, that gaze was love itself.
With me he had been a slave-driver, a monster, but with our daughter his tyranny took on a different form. He could extend or withhold affection with the same facility that he could play upon a keyboard, fondling her or being cold to her without uttering so much as a single syllable of reproach. I watched his love blossom suddenly into laughter as she gained each grade and moved from success to success, and the dark despair that would fall between them when she failed to live up to his expectations of her. I stood on the sidelines. I watched. I waited.
The era of “glasnost” arrived, and Mikhail Mikhailovitch Sirhin was invited to return to the Leningrad Academy for a performance that would mark the culmination of his career to date. The Minister for Culture himself would be there, with who knows how many other notables of the Soviet World. And yet, with a defiant quirkiness that had come increasingly to characterise his performances, Mikhail Mikhailovitch refused to go. The reason? His daughter, the precocious cellist Sonya Mikhailovna Sirhin, who was to perform on that same night for the title of “Young Musician of the Year”, would perform faultlessly only under his loving gaze. The notables of Soviet Russia could simply wait.
For thirteen years I had watched. For thirteen years I had waited silently as his monstrous love tried to mould our daughter in his image. And she had always striven to earn that love. She had driven herself, she had practised ceaselessly, and she had wilted when she had fallen short of that which the pale fire of his eyes demanded. She was thirteen years old, a year younger than I was when Mikhail Mikhailovitch’s cold eyes had begun to burn me. I tried to offer our child love on her own terms, when she cried at night or when she stared vacantly from the living-room window, but I scarcely existed any more for her than I did for her father.
Now at least he hates me, though that misdirected hatred is often more than I can bear. Yet what would he be today, if I’d simply left her?
You see, the truth of the matter is very different to that which they wrote in their papers. I am no “evil woman”. The truth is a precious item that I have twisted and concealed, buried with the body of our daughter so that Mikhail Mikhailovitch will never ruin himself on it. On the evening of the fourteenth, a wild November evening, I found the body of Sonya Mikhailovna hanging from the living-room chandelier, still warm, and with a note clenched in her right fist. The note bore the single Russian word “nyeudachaya”, which is to say failure, so that there can be no doubt to whom it had been addressed. She’d even used one of his belts as a noose. What amazes me even now is that throughout the next half hour I remained calm, more perfectly calm than I had been for many years. I suppose it’s because all that I did was animated by a single, all-powerful conviction. Mikhail Mikhailovitch must never know.
Perhaps I don’t need to tell the rest. They say that the greatest love a man can have is to die for someone else. But how much harder, how much purer is it to live on in someone’s hatred just so that they will never know the crime that they themselves are guilty of? Could he have lived, having burned the only person he had ever really loved? Could I have lived, seeing him finally destroyed by the terrible image of his perfection? What else had I to live for?
I cut the body down – luckily, her neck wasn’t broken, but rather she had been strangled by the belt that she had used – and when I had removed every trace from the living-room, I dragged my daughter upstairs into her bedroom, bound her hands, and wrapped the belt she’d choked upon several times about the bedstead. I brought a paperweight down heavily upon her temple, to intimate a struggle, and tore the sleeve of her blouse. The note I tore up and ate.
Mikhail Mikhailovitch Sirhin postponed the Leningrad performance for eighteen months, all told, but has played twice a year there ever since, to great critical acclaim.
David Butler is a multi-award winning novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright. The most recent of his three published novels, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in March 2017 from Doire Press. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story, the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards for drama, and the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly Baileborough and Poetry Ireland / Trocaire awards for poetry.
Image: Flickr / Simone