Their Unspendable Coins

Photo by Anthony Delanoix : Story by J.C. Howell

“There’s a license,” Coleman explains in quiet, expatriate English: slow enough and clear enough for Yury’s understanding. “Few are granted, and almost none — as far as I know — are passed along.”

“It is illegal?”

“To share these coins?” Coleman is as lean as a cat and as brown as the husk of an oak-leaf clinging to its branch in the frosted depths of February. Where such a leaf is dead and papery, Coleman’s flesh is as warm and as comforting as the sweetened burn of expensive brandy.

“Yes.”

“I don’t think so,” Coleman says, fingering his teacup. “Just uncommon.”

The first colors of dusk waft across the world beyond the façade window of Café Slava as Yury considers Coleman’s words. They serve zavarka here, with the chance to brew it yourself in ornate, faux-antique samovars brought out by impeccably-polite waiters. Few tourists come to this part of the city, and Yury counts Café Slava as one of Coleman’s intoxicating discoveries. He’s known about it for six months, and for six months Yury has explored the strangeness of this city; sometimes at Coleman’s side, and sometimes through pictures captured by Coleman’s intimidating camera. He’s been the subject of Coleman’s photographic interest dozens of times; naked in the wreckage of any previous night’s sex with a slant of sunlight drawn across his skin.

“So why now? Why with me?” Because he’s just some awkward guy: as lean and as wet-sand blond as any displaced northerner. Because he’s a refugee, though the stamp in his passport, his visa, and this country’s legal statements don’t declare him as such, and only Coleman ever mentions Crimea as if it’s a legitimate place. He’s always afraid to see how kindly Coleman regards him every time he grants a gentle courtesy beyond the zealous heat of sex on weekends or on random weeknights, or whenever restless torment makes him send Coleman a text, a phone-call, or any invitation for drinks in the barrel-vault cellar of that bar on Znín Street. He’s afraid because Coleman is the exotic black American, teaching English to local businessmen and there’s never a tangible reason for him to enliven Yury’s own plain, sallow days, and yet….

“Because something important happens; I want to share it with you — ”

Two silvery disks, edged in copper, gleam on the table between them. Emblazoned with inscrutable runes, like the footprints of implausible, alien birds; they shimmer as if bathed in muddled, pearlescent moonlight.

“ — but you need one of these to experience it,” Coleman says, sliding one of the coins across the table to Yury.

And by late night, they’ve wandered into the city’s ancient heart, and the hoary Blacksmith’s Square is strangely devoid of both tourists and brooding locals. Yury has walked with Coleman, unsettled by the graceless noise of his footsteps on timeworn cobblestones, but now — at Coleman’s playful insistence — he has removed his sandals, and posed the naked pallor of his toes beneath the lens of Coleman’s iPhone camera; the one he uses only when he’s left his real camera at home.

Holding hands, they trace the edges of the square on foot until, at midnight, an old man steps from the shadows, claiming spot in the middle of the emptiness. He stands near the plague monument — one of thousands in this part of Europe. The man, as Yury sees him, is impossibly old; he is bearded like any Church Slavonic patriarch, but regal and in ways that don’t fit into the confines of his mind. He doesn’t know how to see this man in a rough-woven tunic and trousers like some 13th-Century peasant. And now, others have appeared in the square: lone women and lone men. They’re all lonely, Yury thinks, recognizing their stooped and weighted postures.

“Listen,” Coleman says, clasping his hand.

But there’s sad and troubling magic in the song breathed from deep within the wizened old man. His voice is powerful and supple; hypnotic. Yury is chilled, and he feels the cloying night around him. There is movement just beyond the square: something growing close; carvings on the facades of timeworn buildings shimmer as something peels away from each of them; strange amoebic billows congeal into flesh-clad echoes of whatever carvings have yielded them. There are horsemen in the square, saints, and naked women wreathed in strategic, floral garlands; angels and poets and trumpet-blowing heralds gather around the singer, enraptured by his song. And by the end of it, Yury knows with marrow-deep certainty that all of the city’s statues have been sung out of slumber. Summoned. For reasons he cannot imagine, they disperse into the alleys and narrow streets fanning out from the square. They move with common, determined purpose with bleak and haunting darkness in their manner.

“Vampires,” Coleman says. “They’ll spend tonight, creeping into homes and eating the dreams of everyone asleep. It happens once a year; one dreamless night. But it’s sadder than that.” Coleman pulls his hand from Yury’s clasp, fishes in his pocket for the moon-gleaming coin, and holds it in his open palm. “There’s a treaty. That’s what these coins are all about. Anyone who carries one can stay awake on the nights that the statues feed. We come to hear their song, to watch them gather and disperse.”

And Yury feels sad, appalling logic becoming plain; awareness bleeding into his flesh and blood from the coin in his own pocket. “To bear witness,” he says, before he’s aware of the words.

“Yeah,” Coleman says. “To understand the sadness of living eternal, dreamless lives: to eat, but never to experience.” A shiver dwells deep in Coleman’s voice, as the last of the statue-wraiths wander out of the square and into the night’s irregular stillness. “Come home with me,” he says in a plaintive whisper as heavy as the coin he holds and the coin he has given. “Let’s hold each other tonight.”

“Yes,” Yury pleads. He tastes melancholy hunger in his voice. “Let’s hold each other every night.”

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.