First appearance in ASIM Issue #54
“Is dangerous, this ice,” said the Russian.
The great frozen mass approached slowly, the steward struggling to push the cart across the threshold of the card room.
“I agree,” said the New Yorker. He shuffled a deck of cards, rather listlessly. “Looks like it’s about to give our steward here a hernia.”
“I only wanted enough to put in my brandy,” said the Texan. “Why’d he bring the whole block?”
“White Star line is very prideful of her service,” said the steward.
“They don’t do anything small on the Titanic,” the New Yorker said. “Not in first class, anyway.”
The steward brought down the icepick with a practiced stroke. Shards of ice fell, glittering, on the plate. The steward dropped them into the Texan’s glass.
“The danger right now,” the Englishman said, “is that a Frenchman might walk in. He would be well within his rights to shoot you for this sacrilege. Ice in Armagnac—”
“It’s just brandy,” the Texan said. “You ain’t French, are you, boy?”
“No, Sir,” the steward replied.
“That’s a funny accent,” said the Texan. “Where’re you from?”
“Transylvania,” said the steward. “Sir.”
“Quinsy,” said the Russian. “You could make cold your throat and die of quinsy. Is what happened to your George Washington. He die of quinsy.” The Russian paused. “In December. When is cold.”
“He died of bloodletting,” said the New Yorker.
“In America they use bloodletting?” said the Russian. “In Russia we use leeches. Nobody die of leeches. What they use in England?”
“Transylvanians,” the Englishman said.
“What?” the Russian said.
“Will there be anything else?” the steward said.
“No,” the Russian said. “Transylvanians for leeches?”
“Vampires,” the Englishman said.
“Ah,” the Russian said. “From Mr. Stoker’s book. Is funny.”
“You read Dracula?” the New Yorker said.
“I read all English books,” said the Russian. “Sherlock Houses. Brave Captains. Machine of the Times.”
“H. G. Wells!” the Englishman exclaimed. “You like Wells!”
“I read Wells,” said the Russian. “I not like Wells.”
“I can’t stand Wells, either. Damned Socialist,” the Texan said.
“I rather liked War of the Worlds, myself,” said the New Yorker. “In the end, when the invaders die of influenza—”
“Could I fetch more ice?” the steward said.
“We’ve plenty,” the Texan said. “What Wells wrote—that’s just damn fool nonsense. Can’t happen.”
“Why not?” the Englishman asked.
“First of all, down on the ranch, if you got sick cows, you keep them away from healthy cows, but your turkeys and chickens will be fine. The idea of Martians catching rinderpest when goats won’t—well, that’s just ridiculous.”
“True,” said the New Yorker.
“And secondly,” the Texan said, “ain’t nothin’ on Mars. If they was from Mars, they’d leave somethin’ we could see. I’m sure Mr. Lowell would have seen cities, not just canals, if there was any Martians like in the book.”
“Is nothing around the Caspian, now,” said the Russian. “And we are all from there.”
“More Armagnac, perhaps?” the steward suggested.
“We have enough Armagnac,” the New Yorker said.
“What’s that about Caspian?” The Texan asked. “That’s a sea, isn’t it?”
“I think he refers to the Pontic hypothesis of Indo-European urheimat,” said the Englishman.
“Would you mind speaking English?” the Texan said.
“Could I fetch you a new deck of cards?” the steward said. “You have not finished your game of bridge.”
“I’m sick of bridge,” said the New Yorker. “I’m bored half to death. Nothing ever happens on the Titanic.”
“What are you complaining about?” the Texan said. “The food is perfect, the band is first rate. And the service …” He waived at the steward. “Speaks for itself.”
“The Titanic,” the steward said, “received the best of the White Star Line’s meticulously selected personnel, of which I am proud to be a member. Could I perhaps bring some cheese or sorbet?”
“See what I mean?,” the New Yorker said. “I can’t complain about anything here. I want to go home. In New York, I can complain. Sets my teeth on edge, not complaining. Can’t wait to get off this damned ship.”
“Such language,” the Englishman said.
“Lomonosov write about language,” the Russian said. “dva is always two, tri is always three, kot is always cat, in Slavic and Germanic and Hindustani. All similar languages, all from the steppe. Nothing there now.”
“Interesting,” said the Englishman. “I think I see your point.”
“Is like a Russian card game,” said the Russian. “Is called Durak.”
“Durak … Isn’t that the Russian word for ‘fool’?” the New Yorker asked. “One hears it often, walking on Lower East Side.”
The Russian nodded. “‘Durak’ is also loser in the game.”
From the corner of the room, the steward watched with great interest. “Cigars?” He called. “Could I bring cigars?”
“If you don’t mind, no, we don’t want any cigars,” the Englishman said, “I would like to learn this … Durak.”
The Russian picked up the deck and looked around. “Have I your permission?” he asked.
The others nodded.
The Russian quickly dealt six cards each to himself and the Englishman. He flipped the thirteenth card face up; it was the jack of diamonds. The rest of the deck he put face down next to the open card.
“This card,” he said, pointing to the jack, “tells us trump. Trumps work same as in bridge: higher card beat lower card but only of her own suit, and any trump card beat anything except higher trump. Now I attack.” He put a seven of clubs face up.
“I think I see,” said the Englishman. He covered it with the ten of clubs.
“Now,” the Russian said, “I can only continue the attack with cards same price as already on the table: tens and sevens.” He put down a seven of hearts. “Of course, it was good idea to lead with card I had in pair …”
The Englishman put down a six of diamonds.
“Now we know what he ain’t got,” the Texan remarked. “If he had a heart above a seven, he’d’a played it.”
“Exactly,” the Russian said. “And lucky for me …” He put down the six of hearts.
The Englishman looked up. “I haven’t any hearts and I haven’t any more diamonds. What now?”
“Now you pick them up. They your cards now,” the Russian said. “Me, I am down to three cards, so I take three from deck.” He picked up three cards. “Now I have six again, and since I won this hand, I attack again.” He put down a jack of spades.
The Englishman countered with an ace of spades. “Now you can attack with a jack or an ace, correct?”
“Correct,” said the Russian. “I was, however, thinking you might have queen or king, and I would continue. As it is, I finished. This goes in discard.” He placed the two cards on the table in a new pile and picked up a card from the reserve deck. “Now you attack.”
The Englishman led with a seven of hearts. “Getting my own back, no?” the Russian said, countering with a queen of hearts.
The Englishman continued with a seven of clubs.
The Russian covered with a jack. “Now if I had that in last hand …” he said. “But I only picked it up just now.” He covered the seven with a queen of spades. “I have lower card,” he said, “but is good to limit your opponent’s options, no? Have you anything for attack?”
The Englishman shook his head. “No more sevens, no jacks, no queens.”
The Russian gathered the cards on the table. “A successful defense,” he said, putting them in the discard. “Now I need three, but I wait for you, since you defended. You have …”
“Five,” the Englishman said. “So I take one?”
The Russian nodded. The Englishman picked up a card, followed by the Russian.
“Waldorf pudding?” the steward suggested.
“Will you please stop already with the asking?” the New Yorker said. “Now, where were we?”
“One card, makes six, and my turn to attack,” the Englishman said. “This seems a great game, so far.”
“How is this better than bridge?” the Texan asked.
“More like real war,” the Englishman said. “The forces used in one battle are still there for the next—but not necessarily on the same side. And I suppose the allies are not permanent, as they would be in bridge?”
“Yes, allies,” The Russian said. “I will show you Durak with many people later, you will see—you can change allies in middle of hand.”
“Napoleonic wars,” the Englishman said. “Or Thirty Years War. Or the wars of Alexander’s successors.”
“We have Napoleon cake,” the steward said. “It’s very good.”
“No cake,” the Texan said. “Now, what’s the object of the game?”
“It is,” the Russian said, “with the reserve pile gone, to have no cards left in your hand at the end.”
“That’s a little odd,” the New Yorker said. “In real life, how do you win by having nothing left?”
The Russian smiled. “What languages we speak, in addition to English? I speak Russian, French and Polish.”
“Some Punjabi for me,” the Englishman said. “From my Army days.”
“Spanish,” said the Texan.
“German,” said the New Yorker.
“German chocolate cake?” the steward asked.
“I’m stuffed like a pig,” the Texan said. “That steak with chopped liver … And … oh yes. What do all these languages have in common?”
“They are Indo-European languages,” the Englishman said. “Originating most probably in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea, in your own country.”
“Have you ever been there?” the Russian said.
“Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly?” the steward asked.
The Texan shook his head, looking very much like a horse shooing away a very annoying fly. “Why does he keep butting in? Can’t hardly keep a conversation going with all these interruptions. What was that last thing? Right! No, I have never been in your country.”
“Believe me, sir,” the Russian continued, “nothing and nobody there, now.”
“Interesting point,” the New Yorker said.
“And what does this have to do with Mr. Wells?”
“You start the game of Durak by attacking with ace or trump?” the Russian asked.
“No,” the New Yorker said. “Your opponent would then be able to use it against you later in the game. As in—”
“The Sepoys had our rifles when they rebelled,” the Englishman said.
“And Washington was British-trained,” the New Yorker said. “And the Japanese went from junks to battleships in forty years after Mr. Perry’s visit.”
“We have excellent Chocolate and Vanilla Eclairs,” the steward said.
“They have excellent battleships in Japanese Navy,” the Russian said. “I saw. At Tsushima.” He shook his head. “Pacific not good place to be in lifeboat. Lifeboat not good place to be. Ever.”
“So it’s unlikely that Martians would attack with over-advanced weaponry,” The Englishman said. “Heat rays or some such.”
“Not if they are smart,” the New Yorker said. “Now, if you take Mr. Stoker’s book …”
“Martian vampires!” the Englishman exclaimed. “The unearthly undead!”
“I’m glad someone is making sense out of this,” the Texan said. “Would you mind explaining?”
“Let us discard, shall we say, the fanciful idea that one who is bit becomes a vampire,” the Englishman said. “Let us hold on to the long life span and the unusual dietary requirements. And let us consider the vampire’s curious immunity to the mirror and daguerreotype. We have, then, a race of invisible—or simply quite small—beings, able to project their appearance and voice directly into our mind by mesmeric power, and levitate by some other, scientific means. They could have walked among us since before the time of Vlad Tepes. Since before Gilgamesh, for that matter. And we’d be none the wiser.”
“Ice Cream?” the steward said. “French vanilla …”
“Cold make sick, like quinsy or consumption,” the Russian said, rubbing his throat. “Mars like Siberian tundra: cold, empty, bad weather. Good place to run away from. I read about Jose de Acosta, he think Indians ran away to America from Siberia. Nothing left on tundra. Nothing left on Mars.”
“I guess this means one of us could be a Martian vampire,” the Texan said. “Ain’t that right, boy?” he added, waving to the steward.
“White Star Line would never,” the steward said, “allow a person of dubious character on board one of its ships.” Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he backed away from the table.
“Easy to find out,” the New Yorker said. He produced a polished cigarette case. “Here I am,” he said, shifting to sit near the Russian, “and here you are. Two reflections. Now you, gentlemen,” he handed the case to the Texan.
“And here we are, both of us,” the Texan said, leaning toward Englishman. “Waiter! Come here, boy. Your turn.”
“In a moment, sir,” the steward said from the doorway.
“Come back here. I want to see your mug in the mirror,” the Texan called. “Where you going, boy?”
“A most important matter, sir,” the steward said. “I must fetch more ice.” He hurried away.
“There’s still a block of it on the table,” the New Yorker said. “What’s he gonna fetch, an iceberg?”
© Anatoly Belilovsky, 2012. Do not reprint without permission from the author.