Bassam F. Sidiki is a student of Pakistani origin at Georgetown University, where he hopes to major in Literature or Philosophy on the pre-medicine track. He enjoys writing and performing poetry, wearing a variety of hats, and watching period dramas or TV/movie adaptations of his favorite fictional works. His work has appeared previously in Papercuts and in Solidarity International, a magazine dedicated to literature in English by writers of Pakistani descent. He is also alum of the Colgate Writers’ Conference and is a staff member at The Anthem, the only literary magazine at Georgetown.
The Vestiges of Power – A Tribute to Anna Karenina
Crown Princess Alexis of the Isles of Melrose sat dejectedly at the large mahogany table for breakfast in her favorite red satin nightgown. Her mother the Queen Regnant Ameliora sat across from her, quietly finishing the last of her scrambled eggs. At the head of the table, her father was holding an electronic tablet in his left hand and in his right a spoon from which he audibly slurped the tomato soup he loved to have on warm Melrose mornings.
‘What are you reading, DD?’ Ameliora asked her husband, calling him by his goofy nickname that in no small measure added to the constant emasculation he suffered at the hands of the queen. It so happened that Princess Alexis’s father was a duke, and his first name was also Duke.
Duke Duke took another slurp of his tomato soup and answered, coldly, with his gaze still fixed on the tablet, ‘The Washington Post. There’s a rather hilarious article about the clock tower at Alexis’s university.’ He then looked up at his daughter, who was playing with her newly grown hair and thoughtfully staring into her bowl of milk and Coco-Pops as she rearranged the cereal into different shapes.
Alexis hated cereal, but she had gotten used to it; she had been forced to take it to avoid the constipation caused by her chemotherapy. She repeatedly moved the remaining Coco-Pops which were finally silent after their continuous snap and crackle. The cereal grains swirled around in the bowl and when they settled, Alexis stared at them deeply like a gypsy gazes into a crystal ball in a moment of clairvoyance; the soggy, brown ovals had taken the form of the Isles of Melrose – a tiny cluster of islands, in the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea, which even a proficient navigator would find difficult to locate on a map. Alexis felt rather insignificant. She put her spoon down and stopped playing with her breakfast.
She had begun to hate her country. She had begun to hate it all, and could not wait to leave for Washington. They very thought of resuming her education in the city considered to be the seat of world power invigorated her, but something was amiss.
‘Please smile, my love,’ said the Duke. ‘The wait is finally over. You’re all better now, and you are going to the university of your dreams. Did you read this article about the clock tower? It is bound to cheer you up.’
‘I did,’ she said in her matter of fact tone. ‘Someone successfully steals the clock hands every five to six years. It’s a tradition.’
‘I see,’ said the Duke. ‘Have you been in touch with the admissions office?’
‘And the oncologist?’ said the Queen.
‘Her, too. We have an appointment with her first thing tomorrow morning.’
‘Ah,’ said the Duke. The three were silent again for a while. The silence was broken by the recognizable click-clack of Balmorals. Relic, the chubby footman, appeared in the doorway. The royal family knew he was there, but did not care to look up.
‘Your Excellencies, the jet is ready. Also, there is a letter for the princess, from the university,’ he said and elegantly walked toward Alexis to hand her the beige envelope.
‘A letter?’ Alexis said with some delight as she took the envelope from Relic’s gloved hands. ‘Thank you, Relic. And please ask Rosina to get my clothes out for the flight. And my favorite wig as well.’
‘Very well, Princess,’ he said and left. The Duke and Queen looked excitedly at their daughter, happy to see her smile after a very long time. Alexis hurriedly unfastened the sealed envelope with a paper knife.
‘It’s from the university’s Society for Mediterranean Nations. It is personally addressed to me,’ she finally said.
‘Well, what does it say?’ asked the queen.
‘Dear Princess Alexis,’ she began reading. ‘We are pleased that you have chosen our university as your home for the next four years. We welcome you to join the Society for Mediterranean Nations where your talents and influence will prove to be an invaluable asset. We look forward to seeing you in our regular meetings and to have your much awaited input on innovative ways to further the diplomatic objectives of our ancient society. Should you need any help, or have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us via the university directory. All the best. Yours sincerely, Mark Zachary, President – Society for Mediterranean Nations.’
‘Mark Zachary?’ the queen exclaimed before her daughter had even put down the letter.
‘Yes, the heir to the non-existent throne of Willherst Republic.’ said Alexis.
‘Of course,’ said the Duke. ‘I see that they made him President this year. Ambitious young man, he is.’
‘Well, so much for democracy,’ said the Queen Regnant. ‘We must get ready. I will go wake Alexander, the child simply doesn’t want to get up this morning.’
As they sat in the jet, Alexis looked at her little brother as she always did: with mixed feelings. Alexander was almost a year old now. Her parents had decided to have him when she was diagnosed with cancer two years earlier. The whole idea disgusted her; that her destiny was inextricably linked with that of her country’s, that while she was on her deathbed, her parents had made love in their bed to ensure that the malignant blood in her veins would not affect the survival of the royal family. The cure of her disease was less important than the need for an heir to the throne. She had no significance as an individual, but only as a figurehead for her country.
She felt tattered and fragmented, like the islands she was destined to rule. No physician could glue up her pieces together and make her feel whole again. Two years of absolute detachment from all human contact, apart from her little family, had left her hollow inside. Something was amiss.
She lightly shook her head as she always did to wake up from her usual trance. She tried to block the morbid thoughts and took out her electronic tablet. She looked up Mark Zachary in the university directory and emailed him about her imminent arrival on campus.
‘Alexis,’ said the queen. ‘Did you call Pavlov before boarding?’
The princess did not look up from the tablet, and said, ‘I did not. I have been so excited I must have forgotten. I will call him once we land, to be sure.’
She was betrothed to her cousin Pavlov, the Count of Sever. She had not forgotten; she had not called her fiancé of her own accord, because he never really took a genuine interest in her life. She had been waiting for him to call and say farewell, but he hadn’t. They had met at a ball at the Greek Embassy the day before and had parted with mutual feelings of amicability. Alexis wasn’t sure if those feelings had lasted as she browsed through photos of Mark on the university blog. She then stumbled on a picture of herself with the subtitle ‘Melrose throne heir apparent to attend in the fall.’ She smiled and switched the tablet off as she went into another trance, yearning to hear the peaceful, gushing sounds of the famous Machiavelli Fountain in the university courtyard.
‘I would be happy to show you around and introduce to the rest of the Mediterranean Society,’ Zachary had replied to Alexis’s email. He had never felt nervous before in his life, but he did at that moment as he waited outside the gate of the cancer clinic.
The glass doors parted as the princess exited the building, breaking the necks of many a passerby. The photographs have never done her justice, Zachary thought. No one could have predicted that this young woman had a blood disorder. She was dressed in a white business suit and white high heels. Her fringe haircut wig looked totally natural, and upon the wig she wore a rather peculiar black satin hat. The eyeliner and her pale skin, at that time particularly flushed, along with her shiny apparel made her appear as something quite otherworldly. Zachary felt intimidated.
‘Princess,’ he said with so much composure that it surprised him. He almost bowed to her when she extended her hand to him confidently.
‘Please, call me Alex. I have had enough of the royal niceties,’ she said and chuckled. Her big hazel eyes sparkled with life. Alexis looked intently at Zachary. He was a man of medium stature with a broad chest that seemed to burst out of his white button-down shirt, over which he was wearing a purple blazer. He wore jeans and plaid sneakers.
‘Mark. So nice to finally meet you. I hope your flight was comfortable, and your visit to the doctor’s,’ Zachary said, in perfect American accent, as they started their walk around the campus.
‘Yes, to both. The doctor is nice,’
‘I’m glad to hear that. Why don’t I see your parents?’
‘They had to leave early; royal… stuff, as you Americans say it,’ Alexis said and then realized Zachary was not originally American. ‘I meant, as the Americans say it.’
Zachary chuckled and said, ‘No, no, you’re right. Ever since the monarchy was abolished at Willherst and I came here, I have begun to feel like a true American myself. If democracy has to be the order of the day, I’d prefer the American version to any other.’
‘I see,’ Alexis said. ‘However, I wonder why your country didn’t just resort to constitutional monarchy.’
‘I don’t really care anymore,’ said Zachary. ‘Interesting choice of hat on this warm autumn day.’
Alexis giggled. ‘It’s one of Philip Treacy’s designs. I find them hard to resist. I like your choice of jacket and sneakers, if I may say so myself. I’ve never seen plaid shoes or a purple jacket on a man before.’
Zachary smiled. ‘I’ve been told my statements are a bit loud, but being a leader of any group warrants that, don’t you think? I think you of all people can relate.’
‘Of course. My hat bears witness to it.’
They laughed as they chatted and walked more. Students, running about the campus with their backpacks, gave them looks of awe and admiration.
‘Alex, do you know what my favorite spot is on campus?’
‘The Machiavelli fountain?’ Alexis said.
‘You know me like the back of your hand, princess. We’re here.’ Zachary said as they approached the forlorn courtyard. They took a seat on a bench just by the fountain and contemplated. She looked at him as he stared at the waves of the fountain. His eyes were small and jet black, and his stubble gave his smile a philosophical, all-knowing disposition.
‘Very peaceful, isn’t it?’ Zachary said.
‘Very,’ Alexis said. ‘Have you found a roommate yet?’
‘I have a room all to myself. My therapy suppresses my immune system, so I am very susceptible to infection if exposed to… people too much.’ Alexis said quickly in her characteristic tone.
‘Of course. Don’t mind me mentioning this but the world was shocked when you were hospitalized for…’ Zachary broke off.
‘The pneumonia? It’s all in the past now.’ Alexis smiled. ‘Why do they call it the Machiavelli fountain? Strange name to for a fountain in America, the land of the free. It is a rather ill omen.’
‘It’s one of the as yet unsolved mysteries of this campus. Are you interested in drama, Alex?’
‘Well, the performing arts group has adapted Anna Karenina into a play. I have tickets for it. Would you like to come? Other members of the Mediterranean will be there too.’ ‘I’d love to,’ Alexis said.
Alexis reflected on the happenings of the entire day in her dorm room. She had left in the middle of the second act of the play, where Anna and Vronsky had consummated their relationship. She had felt tired from her therapy and excused herself from the nice Mediterranean students.
Her family had already gone back home after their dinner at the White House. She was finally alone after two years of her parents’ smothering. She did not understand her parents; while it was apparent that they loved her and did not want anything to happen to her, they did not believe in her strength and had given life to a Plan B.
The red curtains and magenta upholstery seemed to mingle in a disturbing redness. The silence and detachment were too overwhelming; she would have preferred a roommate to bar the thoughts that entered her head intermittently, or the memories of her pneumonia; the coughing up of blood, the chest pain.
She had hated her parents’ smothering, but now that she had the solitude she had craved for in those two years of bitter disease, she couldn’t take it in.
‘It’s for your own good,’ she told herself, surveying the room in which she now sat. It bothered her that loneliness could in fact be good for anyone. She felt like a mad prisoner in solitary confinement.
Her appointment with the oncologist earlier in the day suddenly broke into her thoughts; the doctor’s voice played repeatedly, ‘I know you’d like your college years to be… quintessential. But you do realize the limitations on intimacy of that kind are for your own good.’
She almost shrieked as her bed began to vibrate between her thighs; it was her tablet. Her fiancé was video-calling. She unwillingly accepted the call and waved at Pavlov’s fat little freckled face. She forced a smile as she talked, but she was growing to detest that hairless, pink face and those blue eyes, and those freckles that were even worse than the purple leukemic scars on her breasts. The Count of Sever was but an automaton that only cared to show its face on the tablet screen.
She went to bed hating him, and fell asleep immediately.
But two miles away, in his off-campus apartment, Zachary lay wide awake in his bed. That night after the second act of Anna Karenina, he was especially insomniac. He thought about Alexis with multiple feelings; love, compassion, lust and envy.
He had never in his life met a more fascinating woman, a woman who not only attracted him, but also gave him a run for his money. He liked it.
‘But she is betrothed,’ he whispered to himself. ‘She is betrothed. And she is immune-compromised. She is not to be touched.’
He was bitter about the abolishment of his kingdom; he wanted a people to rule, a territory to conquer and perhaps to purge. He wanted vengeance, and he wanted power. The meeting rooms of the Mediterranean Society or the halls of the White House seemed too petty for a person of royal lineage. How could Alexis, with all her ill health, have the privilege to rule millions?
As the semester progressed, Zachary had forged a special friendship with Alexis who had become quite aware of his advances, but never reproached him. Eyebrows were raised, blogs that captured this suspicious affair had not failed to warrant the Count of Sever’s attention, and gossip was rampant in the circles of Washington’s gentry. Alexis had stopped answering her fiancé’s video calls.
‘You do realize it’s my last year at the university, right?’ He said to Alexis one night in her room as they sat, hands clasped in each other’s, on the edge of the bed.
‘I know. And I feel as if it’s my last year on earth,’ Alexis said.
‘What do you mean?’ said Zachary, perplexed.
‘I don’t feel well at all, Mark.’
‘Have you talked to the doctor?’
‘She says it’s going to pass, but I doubt it will.’
Zachary pressed her head close to his chest and embraced her. She smelled the faint scent of tobacco on his button down shirt. It soothed her.
‘It will pass. It will,’ Zachary said. ‘Do you know the Ball of Ambassadors is coming up in late December? I suggest you get excited for that.’
Alexis put her arms on his shoulders, and he around her waist, as they gracefully waltzed about the ballroom in Victoria Hall. It was particularly cold that night. Alexis was dressed in a black velvet gown and a Russian mink hat, while Zachary had donned a maroon tuxedo. The princess felt light-headed, and the lifts instilled in her a kind of vague intoxication. She had not felt as powerless as she did that night, and welcomed Zachary’s lifts. Dazed, she rested her back-combed head on his shoulder. The Davidoff intoxicated her even more.
Zachary seemed composed, but even he was not feeling up to it. He hated the cold, and suspected he had caught something that day. But composure was a part of who he was, and he miraculously controlled the urge to sneeze.
The entire ballroom looked in their direction. ‘But she’s betrothed!’ said one chubby girl in the clique of senator’s daughters. ‘Does Pavlov have any idea?’
As the ball neared its end, Alexis and Zachary excused themselves and the latter escorted the princess to her room. It had begun to snow lightly. As they crossed the fountain, Alexis noticed the inscription on one of the red bricks: ‘The end justifies the means.’
They stood silently at the door of her room and then embraced.
‘No, I cannot. You know I cannot,’ Alexis said, and broke free from him.
‘I know, and I understand. Good night. I will see you tomorrow,’ Zachary said and left.
As he was on his way to his car, he stopped by the fountain and waited desperately for a sign. He stood there, staring stupidly at the clouds of mist he had exhaled. Just when his hands were starting to numb, his cell phone began to ring. Alexis was calling. He hurried back to her room and knocked on the door.
The door flung open with a passion. Two years of disease had rendered her powerless. She knew she had only a fifty percent chance of being cured, but she now enjoyed being the enchantress; the one to lure a weak, throne-less man into her grasp. Her substitute for the kingdom’s future had already been born; there was absolutely no need for her anymore. There was no need for her, and there was no need for repression. There was no need for any severance anymore, only the warmth of a companion. She stared at the red room around her. What had initially looked like the protective, cushioning womb of her mother, now looked like her deathbed itself.
Zachary knew he had put her in danger, but he savored the idea of such a powerful personage in his arms. His own sadism surprised him, and the fact that he enjoyed the prospect of destroying anyone who dared to have the power that he never possessed. He loved her, and he hated her at the same time.
Just then, he sneezed, and they stopped as if time had come to a standstill.
Alexis stared at her lover furiously and pushed him off of her. She then hurriedly put on her gown.
‘You’re sick?’ she shrieked, ‘I need to go out. This room is suffocating me. I need to go out!’
Alexis ran from the building and Zachary, with a sudden realization of guilt, pursued her. He stopped at the fountain where Alexis was washing her face and arms with the almost-frozen water.
‘I feel hot. I can’t breathe,’ she said.
Zachary noticed that her breathing was growing shallower by the minute.
‘Alex!’ he shouted and ran to hold her as she collapsed into the fountain. She began to cough up blood, so much that the waters of Machiavelli fountain were dyed red. Zachary called the on-campus hospital.
‘It’s too late for that,’ Alexis said as she wheezed. ‘Let me be. This is all I ever wanted.’
‘The means have justified an end that I no longer have to fear.’
‘But…’ Zachary’s last words to her were lost somewhere in the cold air as she coughed up more blood, and within a minute, died in his shivering arms.