They become very concerned with light. And they decide to like lots of other things along with it: driving their car too fast, memorizing constellations, drinking imported liquors, taking photographs on heavy cameras slung from straps across their shoulders, spinning around on their tiptoes in their shared studio at night until they feel sick and loose and otherworldly. And then trying to paint the sickness. They like ragtime. They buy sheet music of American songs and get their musician friends to play it for them, they realize they have no musician friends, they loiter outside of the conservatory in central St. Petersburg until they make musician friends. They must be absolutely modern. They like Rimbaud too, they plagiarize him in conversations and hope people don’t notice, that they’ll just find them extremely intelligent in their turns of phrase. For a few weeks in November, they try denying themselves things — drink only water, eat grains and leafy greens instead of meat, go to bed just as the sun sets and wake up when it rises — to see if it will make them more modern. And then they realize that this particular strategy won’t work, as both of their parents begin to get very proud of them and their moderate life choices, so they start indulging themselves all over again. They name an art movement after sunrays. They decide to go by Anglicized nicknames because it was formerly fashionable in Russia a number of decades ago during the time of Tolstoy, and decidedly isn’t anymore. She chooses Tully and he chooses Mickey (their real names are much more beautiful). They drive their car too fast.
This particular night, Tully has the wheel and they’re heading out towards some village in country to see the sky without all of the exciting cosmopolitan distractions. The night before, they had focused on seeing such distractions. Lying shivering on the cobblestone road outside of their apartment building, marveling at how the stars vanish and it all goes kind of a vague swirling yellow when met with the obliterating force of streetlamps and billboards and glowing restaurants packed with people in love. They each tried to paint the scene, afterwards. Tully drew barbed circles of golden paint wrapping mechanically around a dark center. Mickey just crumpled his canvas into a ball and then set it on fire in a trash can in the alley. That turned into its own entertainment, for them, as to understand light you might as well watch things burn. Once it was a pile of ash, he said they should try again, without barriers this time.
“Turn the dial, now, won’t you?” Mickey said, gesturing towards the dashboard with elegant fingers. His rings glinted, inlaid with red jewels. Tully obliged and the car filled with static.
Car radios hadn’t properly been invented yet. An extremely rudimentary prototype had been demonstrated at the St. Louis World Fair about six years prior, but it was still decades off from hitting the market, and no one was talking about it east of France. Yet Tully and Mickey had one, somehow. It had shown up a few weeks after they began the experiments. Not after the false start, when they rubbed their hands against their eyes until they saw strange flashbulbs that persisted for minutes afterwards, and got terrible headaches. But when they did it right.
Mickey grabs the flashlight from under the seat, as Tully relaxes her grip on the steering wheel, begins to breathe deeper. Snow is coming down outside in a gentle, constant kind of way, forming a border of white along the base of the windshield. The ribs of bare branches wave above them in the night, old trees that stand like sentinels on either side of the one-lane dirt road. Tully lets her leather boot press down lovingly on the gas pedal.
“I’m very excited about this,” Tully says, and Mickey hums knowingly. “It feels good to be so excited every time.”
He flicks the switch of the flashlight, a sturdy metal one intended for camping or hunting but the two of them had no knack for such pursuits anyways. So Mickey turns the beam of the thing towards his own face, pupils dilating as he forces his eyes open, wider, staring wondrously into the harsh artificial light. Tully won’t do the same. They had tried it that way for a while, with the driver participating, and then they’d gotten pulled over downtown when the car drifted over the lane lines, fined a hefty sum by a policeman in a thick coat with gold buttons that gleamed like suns. Tully had tried to cry, get them off on pity — her eyes were watering from the light anyways — but it didn’t work. So only Mickey points the flashlight into his eyes, and Tully turns her head and leans over every once and a while to pick up some spare rays.
The radio static finds an internal logic, then. It sounds like the inside of a factory, metallic crashes and clicks, strings that are pulled far too tight, and someone is singing too, crooning and sighing. What comes out of this machine on their dashboard is different every time. Tonight, a slurred American voice interrupts to say something like ---93.7 kay ess double-yew vee---sending you back to the age of disco ---- all night long, baby --- sending you---, and they never find out what. The band returns, and Tully reaches over on a reflex to grab onto the velvet sleeve of Mickey’s coat, sparks teasing at the sides of her vision. He shifts to link his hand with hers, and they lock their fingers tight, gripping until both pairs of knuckles whiten from blood loss, and the car keeps moving through the forest.
They don’t mind holding hands. They even tend to, when they’re having fun like this, but it’s just about all that they are willing to do together. The first time that the radio turned on, Mickey got so thrilled that he kissed Tully right on the mouth, but the feel of it just made him laugh hysterically. If they’d ever decided to put enough effort in, over the five years of their purported love affair, they might have been able to figure out how to be attracted to each other, but they were far too lazy for that. So Tully had her girls, and Mickey had his boys, which was exactly what they wanted anyways. Sometimes they’d all find themselves in the kitchen together in the later hours of the night, Tully and some waif with cropped hair and kohl-soaked eyes, and Mickey and some long-limbed bohemian in a tailored suit, and a bottle of sherry would find itself split four ways. Wasn’t that modern? They both thought so.
Eventually, Mickey’s eyes get tired. He turns off the flashlight, the radio sputters out, and Tully pulls over with a screech, the wheel of the car dipping into a gutter where a stream of water has frozen solid. They wrap themselves in furs and walk out into the biting cold of the night, breath coming out in smoking clouds from their lips. The sky above is a punctured brick of charcoal. The sky above is an ocean that glitters in the sun. The sky above is a web of electricity. The sky above is a still-to-come atom bomb. They mix metaphors until their lips and ears start to burn from the wind, and then Tully spreads out their paints in the backseat of the heated car. The two of them begin to drench two canvases.
No one had been hungry for Tully until now. Sure, she’d had passing things: twice at parties thrown by the wealthier of their artist friends, then there were three different girls from the university (poet, poet, philosopher), and once quite ill-advisedly in the women’s bathroom at the opera, sinking down in borrowed men’s trousers onto the shining marble tiles. But with Sofiya it is something on solid ground. Or as solid as it can be to want someone so badly and have them want you even more badly in return. Tully begins to luxuriate in it. She finds a real wonder in the phenomenon of how she can make Sofiya happy just by being there, getting closer, picking her up in her car and driving her to go ice skating. Making space in her bed — she and Mickey have separate ones anyways — and inviting her into it. Yielding, and giving, and saying sweet things ripped off from Keats or Pushkin. Sofiya catches her on it, too, every time, but Tully keeps trying to sneak the thefts past her. Maybe just for the feigned frustration that she gets in return, the knowing laughter, a flexed hand pushing curls of blonde hair out of her face as if to look better upon her exasperating and counterfeiting lover.
“You have nothing of your own to say to me, then? Need these old heroic men to do it for you?” Sofiya says now to a misquoted line of Petrarch’s, elbows propped on the wooden table in front of her. They’re among the remaining stragglers in the restaurant, nursing the dregs of their glasses of wine, the crumbs of a chocolate cake. Icicles dangle like so many Swords of Damocles from the awning outside.
Tully shakes her head, holding up a hand to say, let me explain. “No, no, it’s all part of the project. The words are like rays of light, too, can’t you feel it? Splintered into little pieces, and then refracted, or reflected, into the present.”
Now that’s all bullshit really, says the quirk of Sofiya’s lips.
“Refraction and reflection are not the same thing,” she says.
Tully couldn’t define either term if she tried. She waves her fingers above the candle that sits romantically on the table, watching the flame shiver, watching warm light brush against Sofiya’s cheeks and then retreat. The other girl meanwhile is reaching in her purse, holds out some object wrapped in a napkin.
“Prisms refract,” Sofiya said. “Here, you and Mickey should try it.”
Tully slides the paper aside to reveal a long glass triangle, glorious and cold, not even a scratch — Sofiya had taken good care.
Eventually the car pulls up outside, and they walk wine-soaked out onto the city street, gait careless enough to almost cause them to slip on the ice, Tully looking from side to side before pressing Sofiya’s palm to her mouth. Mickey’s in the driver’s seat beckoning them in. They pile into the back like he’s their chauffeur, they speak that comparison out loud and then laugh at it for too long. Tully wonders if there is a limit to joy. Or if the world will simply now expand to fit. The car starts moving and the radio starts playing, Mickey tosses back the flashlight. He’s wearing the pearl necklace that Tully received for her sixteenth birthday, just barely catching the light under his buttoned white shirt. Tonight, as Tully and Sofiya take turns blinding themselves on the warm leather of the backseat, the music is faster, a drumbeat like rushing blood, low low notes that embed themselves into the vehicle’s machinery and tremble there. It’s something to dance to, fast, in a nightclub in Berlin about seventy years and many great wars after the snow-covered street where we now lay our scene.
Rayonism is about light, they’ve established this already. Motorism is about falling asleep in the car and painting things like highways and the smell of gasoline. Pastoralism, contrary to popular belief, is about dressing as shepherds and then drinking too much absinthe and filling their living room with grass that they picked in handfuls from the empty lot near their apartment building. Plagiarism is when they pretend that they actually did originate that line about being absolutely modern.
Tonight, Tully and Mickey are lying on the ornamental rug on the floor of their living room, holding hands, with enough candles lit to be a fire hazard, inventing more -isms. Mickeyism, Tully says, is about trying to paint the sun too often and always being frustrated by the result. Tullyism, Mickey says, is about insomnia.
“Everythingism,” Tully says, “is when I speak for all of humankind in all time periods and emotions and illnesses and weathers, and they speak back. It’s when we take everything that has been made before and put it in a single painting, and by doing so, annihilate it all, and then it’s never existed, so must be invented again.”
Mickey likes that one, and writes it down. Somehow the critics catch wind, or overhear the couple’s conversations about Everythingism at future dinners and concerts and walks through the park. This must have happened, because one critic writes a review of Tully’s exhibition in Moscow where he uses the phrase like he came up with it. She’s furious, but then remembers that this is a work of Plagiarism, so it’s quite alright.
On the first night that the city is warm enough for rain, Tully is painting a bunch of red and purple flowers. Sofiya’s prism sits balanced on the base of the easel, not doing anything in particular, although in the previous weeks she’s played around with it plenty — feeding it slim rays of light and watching them bend and open up into a tapestry of colors. Now it just rests as a talisman, as she peers at the bouquet on the table in her studio. She relaxes her vision until it blurs and the flowers split into psychedelic fractals, shards of broken glass. Color, after all, is just light returning back at you. The shape of a petal is just light returning back at you, organized a little better. If you let yourself be a bit suggestible and stop trying to recognize the object, stop saying “flower” and things like that, then you can see the raw material.
Coming from down the hall, a comforting hum of voices. When she’s finished the painting, all spikes and corners and sunbursts the color of blood, Tully goes to join them.
“They built a kind of chamber in their home, a wooden box that had wind running through it,” says a man who Tully has never heard speak before, all intimate and conspiratorial. “And then they’d put little metal wings inside it to test whether the air would catch them right, lift them up, make them weightless.”
When Tully enters the parlor, Mickey is sitting around a table with a man who’s wearing his favorite navy dressing gown and showing him some diagrams on a magazine page. Mickey himself is wearing his second-favorite dressing gown, with its curlicue botanical overlay. He’s pulled out a hunk of hard cheese, a knife, a bottle of vodka.
“Come on, join us! Lev is talking about those American brothers who invented the aviation machine,” Mickey says, beckoning to Tully.
The man next to him looks up, the relaxed smile indicating that he’s already been informed about the couple’s understanding. He’s pretty, as they usually are, with mussed auburn hair and a prominent nose. Lev moves his chair to make room for Tully, who cuts herself a piece of cheese and begins to gnaw at it.
“Lots of people had tried to figure out what they called the ‘flying problem,’ right, the annoying certainty of gravity,” Lev says, his arm draped around the back of Mickey’s chair. “They could solve it because they didn’t view an airplane as too different than a bicycle. They didn’t mythologize it. It was just another fun tool for mankind to play with and tinker at, use to speed up their trips home.”
He goes on explaining that the Wright brothers owned their own bicycle repair shop, and stared at birds a lot. Right now, Mickey is staring at Lev a lot. You like this one, Tully mouths, and he goes a bit pink around the edges. The other man doesn’t notice, however, and is back to pointing at the page in the magazine where a sketch illustrates the brothers’ homemade wind tunnel. An aviation machine is really quite like a bird or a bicycle, he explains, with complicated reasons of physics that neither Tully nor Mickey is equipped to understand. But they keep listening to him, rapt, as rain strikes harder against the windows, wind whistling a tune they recognize from the car radio. Tully pours some vodka into a ceramic teacup, points out to Lev the painted birds along the edges.
“It probably had to be a pair of brothers that would construct the first real flying machine,” Mickey ruminates at one point.
“Like how it takes just two dear friends to make an art movement,” Tully adds, and they grin at each other like thieves.
In the end, Lev sticks around for a while. He gets to hear the radio makes lots of new noises, as the car careens through St. Petersburg with two, three, or four occupants. Sometimes what comes out is just the sound of people talking, often in languages they don’t understand, only in Russian when they stare into the flashlight long enough. News broadcasts, through which they learn about things like machines that can think for themselves, sexual revolution, some wall dividing Germany, Princess Diana, the fall of the wall dividing Germany, and the melting of sheet ice into a rising ocean. The music varies, too (they are introduced, though they would never know it, to Black Flag and Charli XCX). And they learn that humans are sending their flying machines not only into the clouds but to other planets, and Lev loves that, begins to draw detailed blueprints for the spacecraft that will beat the inventors of the first spacecraft. Mickey’s paintings start to feature more star motifs.
The thing about light is this: Tully was once a child on a train that weaved through the mountains, heading to visit her grandparents. Her mother sat in the seat beside her in a heavy dress, writing in a challenging, furious cursive Cyrillic on a pad of paper that she usually only used for grocery lists. Tully wanted to understand the words. She stared over the horizon of her mother’s wrist as the train shook and dining trays clattered in response, stared until she had the words within her. It was nothing more than a to-do list, in a way. Buy flowers for her mother-in-law, take the children’s dirty traveling clothes to the laundry, take her husband’s dirty traveling clothes to the laundry. Then interspersed there was a single commandment to find something new to do or think, that you will tell no one about.
A world unfolded then in front of Tully, who was at the time still Natalia. Her mother was a mystery to her, or at least wanted so badly to be. How had she never noticed before? She wanted to tap her mother on her shoulder through the layers of fabric, ask her a question, but she wouldn’t know what question. She wanted to crawl into her skull, or even just wear her gloves. She felt that she stood at the edge of a yawning canyon, through which maybe fruit trees grow in messy lines, or through which a river runs. This, after all, is what was going on in the canyon below the tracks along which their train was still steadily moving.
“Look, Natashenka,” her mother said suddenly. “Look at how the light hits the mountains.”
And so she looked. The landscape looked like those religious paintings of heaven, overwhelmed with a great effusion of yellow light from the setting sun that softened sharp edges and sharpened soft ones. All bathed in a glowing mist. Her eyes burned, and she did not turn away. Neither did her mother, except for the moment in which, having noticed her daughter’s spying gaze, she discreetly pulled her notebook shut.
If you asked her to explain the incident now, Tully would say that her mother had just wanted to be absolutely modern. And that would be a lie.
In the public gardens, Tully and Sofiya lie on a blanket, staring up at the procession of sunlight through the leaves of an oak tree. It is a cautiously warm Sunday morning; they still have to keep their hands in their coat pockets to stop them from going blue. But what else is spring for, if not for overestimating the speed with which the days will get longer and the air will get easier to bear? Always rushing to take off jackets, and to set up rendezvous in the park. Sofiya’s lips are red from the cold, her hair gleaming gold where the rays hit it, and she’s telling Tully something that’s been bothering her for a while. She wants more of Tully’s mind.
“I know how it is with you and Mickey, you both see each other as gods when it comes to things like this, and I think that’s lovely, I really do,” Sofiya says. “And you have your own intellect, which is a substantial weight to bear. I mean, you try to make it bear Everything.”
“Everythingism,” Tully recites automatically in response.
“Yes, that. But I’m wondering, is there space in there, in your wonderful brutal long-roaming mind, for me? Could you make the space? Let what I say change you? Because otherwise we can keep talking forever and it will still mean nothing.”
Tully considers it. She and Mickey, over the years, have settled within each other, taken up a considerable area. She can predict his reactions — to a poem, to a certain brand of whiskey, to the way that light falls on a landscape. His way of seeing the world is not merged with hers but sitting somewhere beside it, another option, a thread that can be pulled out and inspected or woven with others. A certain color of light that sits on top of other colors of light when you take the white beam and refract it through a prism. She explains this to Sofiya, and then closes her eyes. Feels things rearrange. Makes some room, and lets her in.
Sylvan Lebrun studies comparative literature at Yale University. Their work has been previously published in Solstice Literary Magazine, Gone Lawn, and Parhelion, among others. Sylvan grew up in Tokyo, Japan and sometimes climbs mountains or reports on housing policy.