Keeping Faith

by Irene Heron

A ranging shot of a story, trying, like Illya and Napoleon, to discover the balancing point between ideals and necessary violence.

We have few patrons on this dreary November evening, but that is hardly surprising after today's violence. Tomorrow the regulars will gather to speculate on the political ramifications, but tonight the shock is too new.

In an odd way I am grateful for the quiet. Tonight, of all nights, he has returned and I do not believe in coincidence. After all, I know what Illya Kuryakin does for a living.

As befits the sober adult he has become, Illya greeted me by name but with formal courtesy. His blue gaze, which was once as warm as the Mediterranean on an August day, now registers arctic temperatures. Change may be the rule in these indifferent times, but the thought that the compassionate, idealistic youth I once knew might no longer exist except as a recurring phantom in my memory is particularly bitter.

Illya settled into the same seat he always chose, a low armchair placed just so in the darkest corner of the back lounge. Where he can see but not be seen, except by the most discerning of eyes. Alone, always alone, contained by the stark boundaries that isolate him from everyone else.

Across the room, my beloved Jean-Pierre shakes his head over the evening newspaper, the ragged edge of anger chiseled sharply into his face. He looks toward Illya and I know our thoughts align. We mourn for those who died today, but we grieve even more for the price an old friend must pay. Few comprehend the high price the business of liberty extracts from its soldiers.

Jean-Pierre and I were lucky. Even in the most hopeless days of the Maquis we fought side by side, keeper of each other's faith should either falter. It must be harder by acute degrees for a lone warrior to hold to his path through such an ambiguous maze.

We met Illya more than fifteen years ago. Paris has always attracted extraordinary young men, though he was remarkable even so. In the beginning he came only for the jazz, but because he was beautiful, intelligent and exotic, we seduced him into conversation and as much camaraderie as his solitary nature could tolerate. As was inevitable, he eventually completed his studies and returned to an uncertain future in Russia. Like spent time, we then believed him to be forever beyond our reach.

It is a fact of life that some people are more memorable than others and we rejoiced when Illya once again passed through our doors, although our delight was short-lived. He had reinvented himself during his absence, and the fact that he now carried a gun under his coat was only the most obvious marker. I found a better indicator of change in his calculated gestures and lethal grace, but the true measure showed in his wary and vigilant eyes.

We saw that Illya had acquired the skills of a terrorist, a saboteur. Or those of a patriot and freedom-fighter, Jean-Pierre quickly reminded me. We too had acquired deadly skills during the war, taking to the hills in an effort to liberate our country.

Since then Illya's visits remain infrequent but he does return, drawn perhaps by pleasant memories, accommodating silence and the brotherhood of those who understand the parasitic relationship between aggression and liberty; its seductive appeal and unpleasant necessity. Every time we see him we expect it to be the last, and are always glad when he survives to visit again.

I steal another look at Illya where he is joined to the darkness, composed of equal parts shadow and stillness. He slouches deeper into the chair, eyes closed to slits as he listens to the jazz trio playing in the front room. He appears relaxed but his right hand, his gun hand, is clenched into a tight fist. A ribbon of light from the other room spills across him, an imbalance of light and dark, physical manifestation of the fretful questions gnawing at me.

The final notes of the haunting melody fade into the silence of the lounge and Illya turns to look at us. I see in his eyes that he is weary. In pain. Destabilized, with no one and nothing to anchor him to his path.

My heart must be made of glass, for it shatters.


I cannot make out the features of the approaching man, but he moves with the same precise economy I recognize in Illya.

"Tovarishch." The man, lean and dark-haired, kneels by Illya's chair and wraps both hands around that knotted fist.

I hold my breath, hope surging uncontrollably. For a long moment Illya refuses to look at the newcomer, although he makes no move to disengage either.

The dark-haired man slides one hand up Illya's arm. "Moy droog," he says in a gentle voice.

Illya finally relents and speaks, although he still won't look at this man who identifies himself as friend. "I thought you were in New York."

"I was."

Now Illya raises his head. "How did you find me? I never told you...."

A hand cradles Illya's cheek, and even from here I know a lover's touch when I see one. "Did you doubt I would?"

"Napoleon." A single word, but it says so much. Illya unclenches his fist and and leans into a willing embrace. Over his head I meet this Napoleon's stare, and what I see in his face allows me to release the breath I have been holding.

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