1st place: The Language of Clouds by Anne Johnson

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a novel about Russian aristocrats during the times of Napoleon, is over 1200 pages long and has almost 600 characters. This story selects one character, mentioned briefly, and dives between the lines of Tolstoy’s novel to investigate different interpretations of victory, clouds, and what it means to belong.

**Please note: The text in italics is taken from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

It was already quite dark when Prince Andrew rattled over the paved streets of Brünn and found himself surrounded by high buildings, the lights of shops, houses, and street lamps, fine carriages, and all that atmosphere of a large and active town which is always so attractive to a soldier after camp life. Prince Andrew stayed with Bilíbin, a Russian acquaintance of his in the diplomatic service.

“Ah, my dear prince! I could not have a more welcome visitor,” said Bilíbin as he came out to meet Prince Andrew.

Bilíbin turned to me.“Franz, put the prince’s things in the bedroom.”

“Very good, sir,” I replied and went to prepare a bath for the prince. I understood that for a man used to comfort, being on the front line for such extraordinary lengths of time was exhausting, and the first thing a man of his standing would want was a good bath.

A banya, as I had been strictly instructed by Bilíbin, was more than just a means of getting clean. It was tradition, ritual, culture. These men, all of whom easily adopted the varied cultural aspects of Europe – speaking French, eating schnitzel, and singing in Italian – were, when they shed their clothes, at their most vulnerable, and also their most Russian.

Of course it would not be a proper banya here in Brno, at the temporary residence for Bilíbin, the Russian diplomat who had recently moved from Austria. But there was a room heated with steam, and a tub of simmering water to scrub in, and the cold winter air could come in through the open window. The prince stripped off his mud-caked clothing while I heated the bathwater.

“Ahhhh, the water is perfect… Franz, is it?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, looking at his face. I usually avoided eye contact with my employer and his guests, but in this circumstance his face seemed the safest place to look.

“Your eyes are luminous!” the prince remarked, looking directly back at me. “You have eyes like my sister.”

Terror ran through my veins like quicksilver. Could he tell? I’d been working for Bilíbin for nearly a month now and gone unnoticed; I was not about to be caught out in five minutes in a room clouded with steam. I turned away from him and busied myself folding towels, trying to will my shoulders to be broader and resisting the instinctive urge to adjust my binding, under which I could feel the sweat of fear prickling my skin.

I pictured my mother’s face, fearful and resolute, as she strapped down my chest for the first time, tight enough to cover what needed to be covered, loose enough to let me breathe. We thought that a young stable boy would be the safest disguise for me during wartime, hidden in plain sight as the waves of soldiers known for their cruel treatment of young women passed through. But with so many local men, including servants, now away at the front, it was inevitable that attendants previously delegated to the stables would be conscripted into more duties. And so in addition to tending the horses, I carried suitcases and attended guests. And, when spoken to, tried to keep my face expressionless and my voice deep.

After the prince had lowered himself into the bath, I turned around again. “Do you have everything you need, sir?”

“Where did you get such eyes?” asked the prince. “You’re not Russian, not with that name. Not Austrian, I hope? Though you speak German, I expect. And French, if you are working for Bilíbin. Are you French?”

“Your excellency, I speak French and German and Russian, and a little English as well. And Czech. My mother is Moravian,” I added, biting my tongue as I said it. I wasn’t used to being engaged in conversation. Sometimes Bilíbin also spoke while he bathed, but that was more like thinking aloud. Bilíbin didn’t ask me any questions about myself or look at me as the prince did. Despite my desire to be almost invisible, there was something extraordinarily compelling about being seen.

“Ah, so not an Austrian spy then. Excellent. But then if you are from here, how did you come to speak French? You share no borders.”

“But you also speak French, sir, and you are not French.”

He laughed quickly. “You are observant, young Franz. But you haven’t answered my question. How did you come to learn French?”

“My mother,” I hesitated. “My mother says that the more languages you speak, the more people you can be.”

“And your father?” he prodded.

“My father was… a soldier,” I answered. It had been my intention to stick with the story my mother had once told me: that my father had died when I was a child. Yet I found myself volunteering the truth. There was part of me that wanted very much for the feeling of being seen and heard to continue.

“Ah, this explains your excellent bearing!” he laughed. “With which army?”

“I… I don’t know.” More truth. What was I doing? I glanced at the prince; again his eyes were on me. Would he deduce how it was that I didn’t know my father’s allegiance?

“I see,” he said. The laughter had left his voice. “Please open the window, I need the cold air. And prepare my clothes for dinner.” Clearly, I was dismissed.

“Don’t be surprised if his Most August Majesty the Emperor is not much delighted by your victory. Even I, a poor secretary of the Russian Embassy, do not feel any need in token of my joy to give my Franz a thaler, or let him go with his Liebchen to the Prater… True, we have no Prater here.”

I stood just outside the doorway and listened to Bilíbin and the prince discuss the battle the prince had come from, the marshals, the emperors. Prince Andrew had stopped in Brno on his way to inform the Austrian emperor of his triumph in battle, but the day he arrived, a messenger had come to tell Bilíbin that the French were parading in the streets of Vienna. Bilíbin thus believed that Andrew’s victory was insignificant. It was strange to me that they seemed so concerned about winning territory when as men of wealth they could go anywhere with impunity, taking on whatever culture they wanted, the language, the style. Listening to them, it seemed to me that only the powerful give thought to where the borders are drawn. People in power care about brave deeds, strong leaders, heroes. Ordinary folk care about what lives inside the lines and know that bravery is relative, leaders are born of circumstance, and everyone is the hero of their own story.

When they had finished their meal, I escorted the prince back to his room.

“I have known Bilíbin since Petersburg, and he has been my friend since we were in Vienna. But I am sorry he does not like your town. Does it insult you, Franz?”

“I am happy in my town because my mother is here and I speak the language. But I do not care so much about what it is called or who rules it. I am at home under the sky. I look at the sky and there are no borders there, only clouds that travel as they wish.”

“But clouds do not travel as they wish,” he said, his forehead wrinkling. “Clouds are blown by the wind, and they change shape at the slightest interference – another cloud, a mountain, anything. I suspect you have not traveled much, or you would know that you have to choose where you go quite deliberately, to plan every step. If you don’t plan, anything – everything – can go wrong. Then you will be defeated!”

“I have traveled much less than your excellency,” I admitted. “But I have observed the sky. Certainly you are right: clouds change shape in response to other clouds. They shift, they adapt, taking on new dimensions as they drift. But they are still free. And…” I hesitated; I feared I was talking too much, but he was listening so intently, “And it has not been my experience that planning makes a difference. Perhaps for you it does. But for me, I can plan to do anything, but I’m at the mercy of almost everything. I can plan to sleep outside, but November weather like this can change my plans. If I were a cloud, I would blow along without a care. I would be a voyageuse, and I would belong wherever I went.”

He smiled. “Your French is excellent, but surely you mean voyageur?” I flushed with embarrassment. The prince was looking at me. “Your eyes—” he started.

I spoke quickly as I opened the door to his room, “I’ve laid out a clean shirt for you to sleep in, sir. And the hot stones in the bed should make it warm for you.” I should have helped him change out of his dress uniform, I knew, but I walked away so swiftly that I was halfway down the hall when I heard the door close.

In my own room, alone, I carefully locked the door. I took off my shirt and unwrapped the binding. I smelled of fear and sweat, a long day. No Russian bath for me, though. I poured cold water from the jug into a bowl and wiped myself with a cloth, then rinsed my binding and hung it to dry, pulled on a clean shirt and got into bed. When I was alone, I was a woman, a Czech speaker, a cloud in the sky. I was free. Being around these other people required me to be other things: I squared my jaw like a man, kept my eyes down like a servant, answered in whatever language I was spoken to. Every time I passed for what I was pretending to be, I celebrated my success. But every time, I moved further away from who I really was. Talking to the prince, who seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts, made my lies feel as constricting as the binding. It no longer felt like victory.

The next morning, Prince Andrew woke late. He went into Bilíbin’s study fresh, animated, and handsome. In the study were four gentlemen, almost exclusively diplomats, a set that evidently had its own interests which had nothing to do with war or politics but related to high society, to certain women, and to the official side of the service. These gentlemen received Prince Andrew as one of themselves, an honor they did not extend to many.

“Well now, gentlemen,” said Bilíbin, “Bolkónski is my guest in this house and in Brünn itself. I want to entertain him as far as I can, with all the pleasures of life here. If we were in Vienna it would be easy, but here, in this wretched Moravian hole, it is more difficult, and I beg you all to help me. Brünn’s attractions must be shown him. You can undertake the theater, I society, and you, of course the women.”

“We must let him see Amelie, she’s exquisite!” said one, kissing his fingertips.

“I shall scarcely be able to avail myself of your hospitality, gentlemen, it is already time for me to go,” replied Prince Andrew looking at his watch.

I escorted Prince Andrew to his carriage, and he rode to meet the emperor and tell him of the battle. I planned to spend the morning with the horses, away from men who spoke of women as mere “attractions”… like my mother had been, once. Tears stung my eyes, but I blinked them away. Just as I was walking to the stables, a messenger arrived with news of the advance of the French army. The French advance into Austria had prompted Bilíbin’s move to Brno. That morning the French had crossed the bridge and were heading toward us. Everyone attached to the court was retreating to Olomouc. I was called back inside to pack.

Between four and five in the afternoon, Andrew was returning to Bilíbin’s house thinking out a letter to his father about the battle and his visit to Brünn. At the door he found a vehicle half full of luggage. Franz was dragging a portmanteau with some difficulty out of the front door.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Oh, your excellency!” said Franz, with difficulty rolling the portmanteau into the vehicle, “we are to move on still farther. The scoundrel is again at our heels!”

“Wait!” the prince said. “There’s something in there for you, Franz.” He lifted the top of the portmanteau and pulled out a rather thick volume.

A Northern Summer, by Sir John Carr. An English book, sir?” I couldn’t hide my confusion.

“Yes Franz. I think it would do you good to improve your English. Your French is already very good, although, dirons-nous, a little feminine,” I looked at him sharply. He knew. At the same time, I knew he would not betray my secret. He saw who I truly was. It felt like belonging; it felt like home. It felt like a true victory, not triumph over an enemy but honesty shared with a friend. I barely had time to savor the feeling before he continued, “You should practice English. And this book is about travel, which I believe you may someday enjoy as much as your clouds do.”

The prince went to say good-bye to Bilíbin. He would not be retreating to Olomouc with the rest of the court, but would press back towards the front line, towards the advancing French army, following his belief in a world with heroes and borders.

I looked at the pale winter sky, at the clouds passing overhead. The decision was so easy it almost made itself. I would see to it that the luggage was packed, and in the confusion of the move, I would sneak back to my mother and home. It was risky to stay in Brno with the French advancing, but I had no further interest in serving Bilíbin or anyone in power. Russians who could speak French but not Russian, men who were the children of women and abused them, people who spoke as conquerors but did not know how to take care of the places they ruled – I had visited their world, and I had experienced enough lies. I wanted to be where I could feel like myself.

Above Prince Andrew there was now nothing but the sky. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn,” thought Prince Andrew—“not as we ran, shouting and fighting…! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that.” Prince Andrew’s head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky with

the clouds flying over it.

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