Ah! Le Bon Billet...

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
A captive Uzbek catalogue bride remembers an old fairy tale in order to gain her freedom from her wealthy sponsor

Submitted: April 22, 2009

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Submitted: April 22, 2009

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Ah! Le Bon Billet qu’a la Châtre! by Devon Pitlor
 
(Ah, the pretty contract that La Châtre has!)*
 
*[ Ah! le bon billet qu'a La Châtre ! The Marquis de La Châtre was greatly in love with the celebrated Ninon de Lenclos (1620-1705). Being obliged to absent himself for military service, he got her to sign a note in which she pledged herself to remain faithful to him. The fickle beauty, however, soon had another lover, and on remembering the note, " le billet," she laughingly exclaimed: "Ah ! le bon billet qu'a La Châtre!" This has become a proverb, and applies to any promise on which no reliance can be placed.]
 
Ridlor was satisfied upon first sight of Marina as she deplaned. His pilot had radioed ahead in secrecy that she was a ravishing beauty and that his boss would be more than satisfied. The immigration attorney, Angstrom, had said essentially the same. Ridlor had paid the passage of what must have been the most beautiful woman in all of Uzbekistan, and the bridal catalogue photo of her, although alluring, did not do justice to the real item, which now fluttered nervously before him. 
 
Marina seemed blushingly humble and amply pleased to set foot in “America,” as she continually called it, unaware perhaps that she was on a private island barely a half mile in diameter which belonged to Ridlor and which was separated from the actual America by a very thin channel which Marina would one day swim.
 
“America astonishes me,” she exclaimed looking around at the randomly maintained collection of sheds and abandoned hangars at the tiny airstrip. “I feel to be free now.”
 
“You are free,” agreed Ridlor. “But you are also here because you are my wife. I hope that pleases you as much as being away from your village.”
 
Marina’s eyes suddenly glassed over. “My village,” she sobbed. “Oh, how I will miss my village. Its people. Its color. Its festivals. But I am determined to be happy here, and I will for you be a good wife.”
 
"We will see about that," said Ridlor, still gazing. "The last one wasn't."
 
Ridlor was anxious to escort Marina away from the airstrip and to his island home and into his bedroom. Years had passed since the aging businessman had made love to such a nubile starlet. An old stirring began in his loins that he had not felt for years. It was time to go as soon as possible.
 
 
But first they needed to finalize one final document with the attorney, Angstrom, who was waiting in the office of the guest wing. He had been flown in especially for the signing. With him was his own once-foreign wife, a Uzbek native herself, who would translate to make absolutely sure that Marina would understand what she was signing.
 
Ridlor's driver tapped Ridlor gently on the shoulder and winked. Then he opened Marina's door, and the silken prize-bride slinked gracefully out of the Mercedes and followed Ridlor up into the huge house. They paused under the arcade so she could smell the lilacs and roses, both artificially cultivated on what once was just a sandy offshore atoll. "The smell of America," she exclaimed. "I love America."
 
Ridlor nodded and guided her into a small office off the side of the entry alcove. "Please, charming Marina, be seated with me," he said almost ceremoniously. He sat at a banana shaped table aside of the beauty, and, attempting to be agile, he tore his pleated pants in the crotch, a thing which the dazzled-by-America Marina did not notice, nor should she have. Her thoughts were on Disneyland. It couldn't be far away.
 
Ridlor pounded on a little bell in front of him, and presently Angstrom appeared, gripping a leather portfolio which was full of marriage agreements and immigration papers which Marina would never read although her signature, in Cyrillic, was on all of them. The sheet on the top was closely typed and shorter than the documents beneath it. With due ceremony, Angstrom tore it off the paper stack and held it before his eyes. Minutes later, his wife Ivanova came into the office with her shoulders bent and her eyes averted from everyone else's and sat down quietly in a corner and stared at the edge of the table.Marina, recognizing a countrywoman, started to speak, but glancing at the stern look on Ridlor's face, halted herself. Ridlor made a be-quiet gesture, hands in front of closed mounth, and Marina smiled and fell silent. 
 
Angstrom began the tedious reading of the two paragraphs on the crisp document.
 
"I, Marina Badinova, swear before the legally assembled corpus of witnesses that I will dutifully remain faithful, in body and heart, to my husband, Jonathan Ridlor, during all periods of our legally construed marriage, these to include periods of extended absence of the principal of our union, Jonathan Ridlor, and to further include intervals of non-contact in our household with said principal..."
 
Angstrom signalled with a wave for the abashed Ivanova to translate, and she did mumbling, as it seemed, the words in a tongue never before pronounced on Ridlor Islet. When finished, she continued to stare at the patterns of the oaken table under her eyes. She dared not raise her view to Marina's, as Ridlor, sanguine in his crude, ruddy, late middle-aged self-assurance, terrified her.
 
Angstrom then asked Marina if she understood the document. It was one guaranteeing absolute fidelity to her sponsor and new husband. The physical fidelity was especially stressed in the final paragraph, and Angstom raised a bushy eyebrow to accentuate its importance.
 
Outside a strong wind was picking up. The island, wreaked with waves, would be isolated from the mainland tonight and possibly tomorrow. Angstrom perked an ear to the window and made a note on his service pad. His sleep on the island tonight as well as the delay in his departure the next day would be billable hours. He was keeping track. Ridlor expected that.
 
Marina willingly signed the document, and Angstom notarized it. Despite the mumbled translation, she seemed to have no problem with such a contract.
 
During this interval, Ridlor had arisen and gone to the cadenza to pour himself a cognac. The brown liquor swirled in his snifter. He jealously eyed his prize. She had signed with no argument, just as she had the marriage documents, into which were buried multiple clauses excluding her from any possible inheritance when Ridlor passed from life and his children took possession of the sandy islet. Stomach bulging beyond the encompassment of his trousers, he seemed satisfied and signalled for Angstrom to stop the follow-up explanations. He pointed toward the door, and Angstrom and Ivanova slunk away, attended upon their egress by a manservant who would show them to their rooms. Naturally, Ivanova hesitated briefly in order to allow her husband to precede her out the door.
 
Marina was shown to the master bedroom and invited to use the adjacent bath. She giggled as the husky manservant threw open the closet doors to reveal her new glittering and frilly wardrobe, another gift from Ridlor. Marina had brought little luggage. She had no need of Uzbeki things in America. Ridlor, by contract, would provide for all her needs.
 
Outside the storm raged. Marina remembered her handbag and retrieved it from a top shelf in a closet larger than her father's house had been. In it, wrapped in pink and perfumed tissue, was a pink mobile telephone with a British trademark. The telephone would work in America, her cousin had assured her. She went to the stored numbers, of which there was only one and pressed the dial button. A message came on asking her to leave a voice mail. She did not. The number would be enough.
 
After her shower, Marina noted that the clothes she had worn on the long flight to America and the short flight to the island were gone, replaced by a silken night gown which scarcely covered the curves of her young and agile body. She turned on the television and sat down. If this was the price she must pay to get to America, then so be it. How terrible could it be?
 
After about an hour, Jonathan Ridlor strode into the room without knocking. He stared at Marina voraciously and then paced around the huge bedroom. At once he saw the mobile phone lying on the top of a dressing cabinet. "What is this?" he asked the phone itself as if the phone alone could provide his answer. "A Uzbeki phone. Quite modern you're becoming over there. Well, we won't be needing this." Without ceremony, he dropped the phone to the floor and put his full 260 pounds on it. The tiny phone crunched under his foot as he ground it like a cockroach into the rug. "No, we won't be needing this."
 
A sudden fear of violence gripped Marina. In her mountain village, there were men...men who were charged with physical power...men who overwhelmed women and took them hastily in acts of unrestrained violence. Marina had no fear of that. What scared her was what came after they were spent. Sometimes these men did bodily harm as an aftermath. In Ridlor she sensed the same spirit. He would take her and then hurt her. She knew the type.
 
In her best English, Marina stuck her chin out at Ridlor and blurted "I am bleeding, Mr. Jonathan. I am sorry to speak so, but my time this month has come. Please forgive me."
 
Ridlor eyed his prize with anger. Years rolled back in his mind, unveiling a bedroom from long ago shrouded in the blurred edges of dim memory. He recalled the sticky, dark saline blood that caked his crotch when he had forced himself on Dorothea, his then new bride. The thought of that blood still disturbed the aging magnate, and he turned on his heels, scowling and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
 
Marina looked at the wrecked cellphone on the floor. It was, she knew, not hers to pick up. A domestic would do that.
 
The next day brought calm air and heavy arson sunshine. Marina had no idea what month it was in America. She had left her village in June. That had been just a few sunsets ago, but surely it must be later in America. The air was hot and languid like mid-summer in the Urals. There was too much sunlight and greenery. Too many lush plants were visible from her bedroom window. She sat down and waited for someone to come. The crushed cellphone was still on the floor. Nothing apparently had happened overnight. Then came a knock. Breakfast on a tray, served by a girl with Chinese eyes who avoided her stare. Marina started to say something. "No speak," said the girl. "No speak English." The girl found a broom and a dustpan and quickly swept up the fragments of the phone. She pointed to a folded sheet of paper on the tray of eggs and sausage. It was a note from Ridlor, written in a language Marina could not read. Under the message was a translation in Russian:
 
"I will be gone today until Wednesday. When I return, beautiful Marina, I will finish the job of making you my bride. You may amuse yourself on the island in my absence. Remember your contract. Yours, J.R."
 
Marina, like all Uzbeks, read Russian, the required school language, but even that she read with difficulty. Her education had never been profound in the tiny schoolhouse of her village. She began to remember an old tale of an ogre and a princess that was told and retold to her in her youth. The princess was kept prisoner by the ogre until she at last found a way out of his cave. That, thought Marina at once, is what I must do. She flipped through the frilly dresses hanging in the closet until she found one with fewer ruffles than the rest and pulled it over her head, not bothering to look for undergarments. Her lithe body was hardly clothed, but Marina knew instinctively that things worked better that way. As she descended into the main hall, the domestics stood aside and watched her pass. She was their mistress now, and she carried herself as such. She had read about such matters in picture books. Leaving by a side door, she entered first the garden and then, passing by a stone gateway, onto the sandy loam of her island prison. The sea was calling her. Marina had never seen the ocean, except from the window of the tiny plane that had brought her. She approached the sea wall, mesmerized by the small waves and the salty breeze. Across the narrow channel she could see an empty strip of land. America, she thought. She picked one of the bright, purple flowers growing in profusion along the sea wall. "America, I will have you." 
 
She followed the wall until at last she was in sight of the arcade at the front door of the huge Ridlor mansion. It was the entryway by which she had come in just the day before. On the grassy mat before the mansion was a thin, sandy-haired boy pushing a lawn mower. He wore only a pair of swimming trunks and was, Marina noted, tan and muscular. An American boy, thought Marina. Very pretty. Without thinking of much else, Marina drifted toward the boy, who switched off the growling mower and said "hi." The green ocean and the white clouds were mirrored in his wide eyes. Again, he said "hi."
 
Later that day, he said "bye." He said that as he was leaving her bed and finding a way out through the servants' door. It had been a hi and bye encounter, but it had left Marina refreshed. Her thoughts turned again to "America." Surely America must be full of such beautiful boys. She would find others, and god would forgive her. She was only 23 by the counting of years. She had needs and desires. God would understand, but, of course, Ridlor never would. What was it she had signed? A sort of contract pledging fidelity? It was only paper. Her flesh was real. More real than words on paper, more compelling.
 
During the course of the following day, the lawn and pool boy came again to her bed. She had motioned to him from the window, and he had climbed the vine arbor---just like in the cinema, she mused. For an hour or so, they writhed together without talking, but upon their mutual release of spent energy, she learned his name: Brandon. Brandon from America. Beautiful Brandon. She also learned that Brandon had a small row boat which he brought to the island each day to do his chores for Ridlor. The boat was moored in the little marina where Ridlor's yacht was. Marina was surprised to hear her name used for the place where the boat was kept. "I too am Marina," she smiled. "I am Marina and I do not have a boat." "You can use mine when I am working," said Brandon casually. There was an easiness to their joining, like something that just needed to happen. Conversation and questions were kept to a minimum. Of the many things that Brandon was good at, grinning boyishly was near the top of the list.
 
On the following day, Ridlor returned. Marina was in the great hall assembled with the domestics who awaited his return. It was just a custom they had decided to do each time Ridlor was gone for more than a day. The reason for the custom became evident as Ridlor entered. Into each of their hands he thrust a large denomination bill, and accordingly, they bent slightly and thanked him before scurrying off on their rounds. When Ridor reached Marina, she almost expected a banknote of her own, but there was none. Ridlor stared at her in wonderment. The dress, one of the many he had bought for her, was too revealing. He could not let her strut about in such a garment. And he said so. "Go find something more modest," he demanded. Marina did not understand the word, but Ridlor demonstrated by covering her ample cleavage with his hand. "Cover up," he puffed, redfaced and sweating.
 
He followed her up the stairs and stood beside her, staring boldly as she disrobed. In an instant, his chubby hands were all over her body, squeezing so hard in places that they left blue marks. He pushed her down backwards on the bed, where she lay gaping as he pulled off his trousers and revealed a stomach so large that it occluded whatever else was beneath it. But eventually Marina felt it--or something taut--protruding from the unseen shadow of his crotch. She heard his grunts of lust and rocked her body to and fro trying to touch whatever it was he had to her own zones of pleasure, but it was short lived. Ridlor rolled over in some sort of satisfaction. Marina had none. She thought of the tight muscles and arched back of the boy...what was his name, Brandon? The memory of Brandon, she knew, would get her past the sweaty assaults of Ridlor. And for the next few days it did.
 
As she strolled at midday near the seawall, Marina searched the grounds for Brandon. He was no where in sight, so she proceded toward the marina...the place with her name...where his boat would be. On the way she suddenly heard the roar of a mower coming from around the side of one of the wings of the house, one of the wings where Ridlor did business and she was not allowed. She ran up the grassy mound of turf squares and rounded the corner. Brandon would be there! Who knew where Ridlor was? Who cared? It was Brandon she wanted and would have. But disappointment clouded her eyes when she saw who was pushing the grass cutter. It was a fat shirtless, man, dark and swarthy from that race that always said "No speak English." He wore a straw hat and avoided her eyes.
 
Marina sensed some sort of upset, an air of danger. In her village there was always danger from the gypsies. This man was like a gypsy, but not quite so. She ran back to the place with her name, where stood another of this No Speak English race. But this one spoke English in a strange accent. "Señor Ridlor he gone," said the man not waiting for her to ask. "He take boat to sea this day. Big boat. He leave last night." It was true. Ridlor's huge yacht was missing. The only vessel left in the slip was a small wooden row boat with Brandon K. written across the bow. The boat was partly sunken in the water, half of it being filled with water. The No Speak English man attached a rope to the front of it and tied the rope to a little tractor and pulled it up from the water onto the grass. Marina watched in horror as the rowboat emerged, spilling water from a huge jagged hole blasted through its bottom. "Señor Ridlor shoot boat," said the man. "Señor Ridlor shoot boat dead." The man laughed and sliced a finger across his throat and giggled with a menacing cackle. "Señorita no see big gun. Señor Ridlor use he big gun. Kill boat." Again the main cackled.
 
"Where is Brandon?" she stammered.
 
Again the man guffawed and looked away. "Boat go in fire. Boy es muerto. Muerto, Señorita." 
 
Although Marina did not understand muerto, its meaning was not lost upon her. As the man began chopping up the wooden rowboat, she heard him humming to himself. She let loose a muffled cry and began to run away. His final words were "Boy now swimming with fishes, hahhaha."
 
As Marina entered the house, the servants disappeared one by one from her view. They were clearly avoiding her. She tried to stop the tall, white manservant who had first escorted her to her room, but he looked vaguely over the top of her head as if she were not there and walked on to some seemingly important mission behind her. She ran up to her room. On her bed was a sheet of paper. The contract of fidelity. It had "copy" stamped on it and a short note written in Russian by a hand that was not Ridlor's. "Remember your contract. Do not forget it. I will be back tomorrow. J.R."
 
The Russian was printed so that she could easily read it. Marina recoiled in terror. Though a simple peasant hardly schooled in letters, she could devine what had occurred. Brandon was dead, and the other servants had been warned. Lunch and dinner were served to her on trays by almost invisible hands. None of them met her eyes or spoke. Now she was truly in the cave of the ogre. How did that fairy tale end? A lump formed in Marina's breast, and its horror would not abate with food or drink. She struggled to remember the strategy employed by the legendary princess.
 
When Ridlor again found her, darkness shrouded the silent grounds of the house and a full moon shone brightly through the window giving the island vista an eerie, otherworldly glow. He came to her roughly and tore the dressing gown from her body with a blind, grunting fury. He made himself again naked in the dim bedroom light and stripped the belt from his pants. Then he used it on her. She cried out with each stinging lash, but she knew there was no one there to hear it. When he had finished, he was coated with sweat. He grasped the copy of the fidelity contract from her dressing table and flung it across her naked and bruised body lying on the floor.
 
"If you ever violate it again, I will kill you," he huffed. "Understand? Kill. Or have you killed. When you sign a contract with me, it is for life." He stormed out of the room, and Marina could hear his heavy footfalls on the stairs. The ogre had spoken. The princess must act. But what was it that she had done, the princess?
 
The next day Ridlor came early without announcement. He flung open the bedroom door and marched inside. Marina, still bruised and bleeding from last night's beating, cringed as he neared. Like a cat, she looked for a corner to crouch into, but the walls were rounded, and there was no place to hide. She tried to make herself as small as possible. "Please, Mr. Jonathan," she began, pleading with wide, watery eyes. Ridlor liked her fear. He towered above her and looked down on her with ineffable scorn. His fingers curled around the inside of his belt. Surely he would remove it again and beat her. But she noticed something worse than a belt. It was a knife. Ridlor had carried a large kitchen knife into the room with him. The blade glinted in the morning sun which broke across the ocean channel and filtered into her isolated room. Was he going to kill her? Ridlor fingered the blade with his thumb.
 
"You have already violated your agreement and our marriage," he began, paying more attention to the knife than to Marina. "In this country---America---a contract is a contract, and you have neglected yours." He chopped the knife through the air across the ocean vista beyond the window. "I have seen this before. I have seen everything before. A pretty woman from poverty comes to wealth. My wealth. And finds a way out. There is no way out from here. You are watched now day and night. This island is mine, and there is no way off of it unless I provide that. I paid your way here, and in so many words, I own you. Do you understand?"
 
Marina, still recoiling in abject fear, glanced at the menacing blade and replied that she understood. She started to say that she had made a mistake, but Ridlor silenced her with a thick finger to her lips. 
 
"Shut up," he said. "I do the talking here. There on the dresser is your contract with me. You have already made it worthless. Your signature means nothing. But I will revive it with an oral codicil. Listen carefully. Nod if you understand. Say nothing."
 
Ridlor swept up the contract in a meaty hand and thrust it under her nose. "This part will not be written," he said. "You have two choices now. One, I leave this knife here, and you use it on your arm and die from the shame of dishonoring me, leaving a brief note in Russian that Vladimir, my employee, can translate for the police. Two...two..." Ridlor's bulging eyes became more angrily luminescent as he contemplated the second of two choices he proposed to his Uzbek bride. "Two, I return in an hour with Vladimir and José, and we make your lovely face much less pretty with this knife. We make it so unpretty that no boy, no yardman, will ever think to bed you again. Both choices involve this knife. You have an hour to decide. When I return, if you have not yet died from the shame you have inflicted upon me, we rearrange your face. You will wear a mask for the rest of your life. Do you understand?"
 
Outside the wind picked up and dark clouds suddenly streaked across the sun. Another storm was coming. The air was charged with the crackle of electricity. In an hour, lightning would crease the sky. In this lightning, Marina knew, they would take pleasure in disfiguring her face forever. Her beauty would be gone. But then the other choice was to die by her own hand. Ridlor had even mockingly "sliced" the knife across his own wrist to demonstrate. She could quietly bleed to death. A huge standing clock in the corner rang out the hour. It was nine o'clock. By ten she would need to be dead or mutilated. She had only two choices. Ridlor, reveling in her terror, strode out of the room, throwing the huge knife on the bed alongside Marina. His exit was triumphant and final.
 
But Ridlor, without realizing it, had opened a crack of childhood memory in Marina's mind. The ogre of the celebrated Uzbek story had also issued an ultimatum of choices to the imprisoned princess, and, like Ridlor, the ogre had carried a knife. It was the knife part that Marina remembered the best. A strange Uzbek tale it was, but one with a lesson. Suddenly the smoke and color of her village arose in her frenzied mind. The story became clearer. The princess had shown the way, had she not? Marina gazed at the coming storm and remembered. The minutes raced by, and in an almost seamless transition of compressed time, the clock struck ten, and ten dull chimes began to sound. Before the tenth one echoed through the bedroom, Ridlor was there, in-house walkie talkie in his hand. He would use it to call Vladimir and José. They would assist him in cutting her.
 
Abject in fear, she concentrated on the princess.
 
"Still alive, I see," exclaimed Ridlor. "Then it's the pretty face. Your choice."
 
"Mister Jonathan," she began humbly. "In my village there is a tale of a princess. A beautiful princess. She had two choices like me. A very mean man had given her only two." Marina picked up the knife from the bed where it had lain since Ridlor's departure and held it upward by the blade loosely. "The mean man told the princess she could be thrown into a well with no bottom or marry him and live forever inside his cave. He too had a knife. On his belt."
 
"Don't bother me with a Uzbeki fairy tale," grunted Ridlor. "Just tell me what is your choice. If it is to die, I will give you one more hour maximum. If it is your face, I will call my helpers to hold you down now and we will proceed."
 
As predicted, a streak of white lightning illuminated the dark, rain-drenched sky. Pellets of fine hail beat against the walls of the house and on the window. A spring storm was rolling across the island. Marina tightened her grip on the knife as Ridlor's attention was briefly distracted by the lightning bolt. With her head bowed, she crept closer to Ridlor. In shock and horror, Ridlor watched the clenched fist of the beautiful Uzbek plunge the silver blade into his own chest. A column of dark blood spewed forth. His blood. He could taste it somehow.
 
"The princess found a third choice, Mister Jonathan, and so do I." She jabbed once again into the fat man's chest with the knife. He crumpled and thudded to the floor, splashing into a growing puddle of his own fresh blood.
 
Marina quickly found the sea wall in the dark. She was a good swimmer, having been raised on a river bank in a land of color, smoke and mysteries not quite forgotten. She dived into the troubled channel and swam toward the shrouded shore at the other side. Remembering the princess had saved her. For the princess had done the same with the ogre's long blade. It was her third choice, the one unspecified in any contract, oral or otherwise. When Marina reached the stony shore, she pulled herself up onto a deserted spit of sand beside an asphalt road which wound off into the distance. America, she thought. At last I am in America. She walked onto the road leading into America, and on this road there were no contracts.
____________________________________________
Devon PitlorMarch, 2009
 
 
 
 
 
 


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