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from the September 2012 issue


It was a winter morning when the Tangerine King rolled into my room. He was perfectly round and had a golden crown on his head. Otherwise I wouldn’t have recognized him. I didn’t know the reason for his visit; he had probably grown tired of his narrow plastic box, or fed up with his servants. I wasn’t expecting such an important guest, and as soon as I detected the scent of plantation—the sweat of thousands of hands colored with an orange hint of inspiration—I rushed to the kitchen to make some tea. At the very least one may seem hospitable by proffering a cup of tea. Even if you are running out of sugar, as I was.

Ah, but the winter morning chosen by the Tangerine King for his visit was not quite a winter morning. It was freezing—but just imagine a day breaking, and then petrifying, and lasting, let's say, till next winter. It was on such a strange morning, with a dim sun that warms only the melancholy, and a fading glimmer of light behind windows, and the contentment of waking, hidden beneath warm blankets, reluctant to rise, that I felt a suspicious look upon me, from the height of . . . a tangerine bush.

The King wheeled pompously into the kitchen behind me. The way he moved was most original: he turned somersaults in such a virtuoso manner that his crown remained unmoved, and then he jumped into an old armchair. I didn’t mind, but the chair—it was displeased, and squirmed.

Our guest distinguished himself with his great weight and fickle temperament.

“Would you like some tea?” I offered courteously.

“Arrrrrrrrr!”—a reproving roar in response. 

“It’s my fault, your Majesty. I wasn’t expecting your visit.”

I prefer to look into the eyes of my interlocutor; otherwise no straight or sincere talk is possible. But the Tangerine King had neither eyes nor face. I was disappointed. No glint in the eye, or movement of eyelashes, no depth. I started, and then smiled foolishly. The Tangerine King hissed. He must be in pain, I thought. Several sunshiny drops loudly hit the floor, proving me right.

“Do you need help?” I asked anxiously.

“Pshhhh!” my orange guest answered fearsomely.

“I’m sure you can manage on your own . . .” I said, simply.

But I couldn’t help thinking—“where is that hissing coming from?”

The Tangerine King turned sad. Somewhere inside he may have been speaking, but his rich, pulpy exterior distorted his mellow voice and only sobs of discontent could be heard. A life like that must be hard, with no one to understand you. So I decided to cheer him up.

O, a tangerine in the mouth . . . I began to sing.

“Ahhhh!” my friend roared—I dare call him “friend.” (At first you are strangers, then you smile at each other, talk about pigs and whistles, and then, there it is, you are friends. At least this is what it’s like in childhood, as I recall.)

“My sincere apologies. That was stupid of me. As a matter of fact I wanted to talk about the secret of the universe. Say, an Orange Anchorite strolling along a paved viaduct when the high sun burns his aquamarine eyes; or the rose-hued intervener, Winter in a kaolin shell, plying the river in an old whaleboat.”

I stopped.

“Zuuuuuuuuuu!” The Tangerine King squealed like an infant.

“I’m happy to continue, of course. Well, nothing circulates faster in our veins than the Juice of Life. No doubt in the riddle of this magical substance lies the answer to the universal secret. Myrmidons of tangerine fields and orange greenhouses do not lie.”

“Clip-clip!” the King happily agreed.

How pleasant to have such a majestic caller agree with you. I felt the corners of my mouth begin to burn.  Sun-filled drops continued to fall on the floor, getting louder and louder. The Tangerine King was losing the Juice of Life. As was I. It sprayed out of my mouth leaving wet, fiery traces on my cheeks and lips.

“I should sew up my mouth,” I said aloud.

“It’ll burst through some other place,” the Tangerine King answered inside me.

“How, then, should I be?”

One: don’t be a fool! Two: sleep in the sun. Three: forget what I’ve said. Four: think simply. Five: return to the plantation. Six: feel the warmth of strangers’ hands. Seven: thread, and a word of encouragement. Eight: the divine flesh. Nine: wear the crown.

O, Tangerine in the mouth

A wild column of laughter.

The winter morning continued on in the empty plastic boxes from which we’d sometime flown, dripping our Juice of Life. The Tangerine King didn’t take a sip of his tea. He rolled out of my house in his ingenious way, leaving it empty once more. The wound bled and burned, as before. And the dim sun shone down for all the melancholy fruit scattered about the world. 

© Konstantin Kondratenko. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Semyon Akhrameev. All rights reserved.

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