Pyotr and Uta
by Ugo Litorina
translated by TW
The first time Pyotr saw Uta was at the Zoo in Cosmonaut Park, where he had gone to play chess with the lemurs, which he had done every other Wednesday for five hundred years. At a random moment, for no reason at all, he looked up from his game and there she was, wearing a sealskin suit with dozens upon dozens of pockets for all the little machines that were fashionable that season. Her hat was a tin bowl full of sea urchins and her hands were glass claws filled with veins of black light. Uta’s face, meanwhile, was painted to look like a mandrill’s face and her shoes were covered entirely with porcupine quills. Her shadow was one of the new kinds of shadows that had a mind of its own, which it kept in a box that hissed and shuddered as if it contained a clockwork rattlesnake. The first time Pyotr saw Uta, in fact, she frightened him so much that he instantly forgot he had seen her, although for a long time afterward a tiny new spark danced about in the southernmost corner of his soul.
The second time he saw her was on the first day of the fifteenth month of the year 9999, which was the day every year when everyone in the Galaxy went to the Opera, although no one really liked to go to the Opera much, since there was never any singing, but only long speeches by members of the chorus. During an intermission, Pyotr spotted Uta in a queue for licorice soda. She was wearing a snailskin suit under a pangolin raincoat and now had a whole entourage of shadows in different shades of gray, each one with a mind of its own in an origami box made of blue cellophane. Pyotr thought she looked vaguely familiar, although she looked nothing at all like she had looked before. He didn’t speak to her, though, because he had gone to the Opera dressed as a burning giraffe, which made him popular with the paparazzi, who swarmed so thickly about him that he couldn’t really speak to anyone. But he remembered her after seeing her this time because she didn’t frighten him but instead made him curious, largely because her raincoat was almost exactly like a raincoat Pyotr had once owned, back when it used to rain, which it never did anymore.
The third time Pyotr saw Uta, they were both giving lectures on a circumpolar airship that had been a gift to the World from the people of Shining Star. Pyotr’s talks concerned the history of epic poetry on the planet Caribou, while Uta discussed the peculiar rituals of the fish folk of Canopus. For most of the week it took the airship to trace the coastline of Antarctica (which in those days touched the equator), Pyotr’s path never crossed Uta’s path, although they were both, most of the time, going the same direction around the globe. But when it came time to depart the airship and return home, Pyotr stood behind Uta in a queue at the monorail station inside a papier-maché copy of Mount Erebus. Uta was wearing Pyrex mules and a complex pince-nez that was assembled from the bones of a flying fox. She didn’t have her shadows with her, but instead only a spider-like automaton that carried her numerous bags in its many spidery arms. Pyotr stood near enough to Uta that he could smell her perfume, which was like pepper mixed with cinnamon mixed with the scent of wet moss. He stood near enough, in fact, that his proximity alarmed the station’s guardian angel, which popped out of its hiding place long enough to poke Pyotr in the ribs with the point of a very pointy umbrella. This, of course, made Pyotr jump a few paces back, which made him miss the monorail car Uta was boarding, so that he had to wait several long seconds until the next empty one arrived.
Suffice to say that these close encounters happened many more times for many more years. Pyotr would see Uta now and then at the agitprop theater, or at the Spirit Tank on high holidays, or in the Bodymod Shop in Peg Square. He would see her at the Zoo on Wednesdays, at the rocket pits in the center of the city, or occasionally at the Antique Pond, where he liked to sail a radio boat on days when there were no lectures to give or new poems to read. She was always different, yet always the same: clever, imaginative, assertive, with eyes full of a dangerous kind of humor, no matter the shape or style of body she happened to be wearing on any given day. Pyotr, who was ordinarily a rather solitary and self-sufficient type of person, never quite grew accustomed to the fact the world contained such a creature as Uta, someone who could somehow make him feel awfully lonesome and incomplete. She vexed him, in other words, and although it was what you or I might call a good kind of vexation, Pyotr had no idea if it was good, bad, or otherwise, but only that it was a bothersome sort of itch that simply would not go away.
And so, one afternoon, when Pyotr was walking here and there about the city, he saw Uta in a crowd of people who were all watching an aerial acrobat who was looping and diving and soaring in and out of a tangled thicket of skyscrapers. He stopped, took a deep breath, and began to walk toward her. That day, Uta was dressed as a red centaur with long blue hair and a bodice made from polished cherry wood. She carried a paper book that had dozens upon dozens of pictures in it of a rather solitary and self-sufficient man named Pyotr, the same Pyotr who had finally at long last screwed up his courage enough to come talk to her. Pyotr, though, never found out what was in the book, or that Uta had noticed him nearly as much as he had noticed her, because at exactly the moment when he opened his mouth to speak, a heavy, sharp shoe that had fallen off the aerial acrobat’s foot struck Pyotr square on the top of his head. Which killed him, there and then. Which no one could do anything about, since Pyotr was a little bit old-fashioned and never made a copy of himself to put aside in case of emergencies.
Uta, of course, was sad for a while, because she had grown fond of seeing Pyotr everywhere she went in the city. He was such a quirky soul, almost always in the same body, almost always dressed as something boring, like a water beetle or a sparrow (unless it was an Opera night). But, Uta was different from Pyotr and did not moon about being lonesome and incomplete for long. Her spirit was simply too active and curious and quick-witted for that. Instead, she soon took a notion to explore the other side of the Galaxy with a few hundred of her friends. After a long time Out There, she eventually founded a colony of poets and artists on a world she called Sparrow. Back on Earth, Pyotr was mourned by a few acquaintances for a few days and then forgotten, which is why his story has to be told and re-told every generation or so, as a reminder that time is never, ever on our side.