The beetle had somehow found its way into the conference room, where the Court was about to sit in the matter of Stepan Zarkovsky versus the Province of Quebec over the disposition of Zeno Zarkovsky, age seven. None of the adults, concerned with the protocol, noticed the beetle. The boy had seen the tiny black creature struggling through the blue carpet pile as if it had been a thick jungle. The beetle was determined in its effort, perhaps confident that its armored back would be enough to withstand the few dozen shoes crushing the carpet in the room.

The thin, dark boy sat frozen, his large eyes fixed on the beetle. He felt unable to move. He was fascinated by the possibility of what might happen next, though his entire body had committed to darting out of his seat for rescue. He willed the beetle to move, but it too had become frozen, choosing immobility as a way of saving itself beside these giants. The boy looked at people’s shoes. Who would be responsible for ending the beetle’s life—without even knowing it! What a thought, that this creature’s heroic struggle would not only be squashed, but that no one would know the fact. Other than him.

It was to be a Court proceeding in the informal setting of a conference room, but the boy was unconcerned with any of it.

The conference room’s wall of windows overlooking Montreal streets let in a gray November light that muted expression. But the presiding judge with her stylish red hair and bright green earrings defied the heavy air. She sat wearing her magisterial robes, leaning toward her clerk and sharing a joke. The plaintiff walked around the room talking urgently into a cell phone.  His heavy black shoes seemed to imprint themselves wherever he stood. The court reporter sat straight-backed in one of the cushioned terracotta-colored cushioned chairs at the oval maple boardroom table. She waited by her transcription machine, her fingers ready to gallop. The social worker representing the Ministry of Children’s Services sat worrying the end of her handkerchief held tightly in a fist. Beside her, the thin boy sat quietly looking about the room. Above all, he didn’t want to draw attention to the beetle. It had decided to begin moving slowly between the herd of feet departing the room from the former proceeding. The plaintiff turned off his cell and began talking to his wife. The plaintiff was a big man in his forties with short dark curly hair, like black lichen clinging to a rock. He swung his arms when he spoke, causing his wife to wince, but whether it was because of the grandiosity of the gestures or the size of his hands, the boy didn’t know.  The plaintiff forced himself to sit down, smiling at everybody sitting around the table.

The clerk stood up and announced that the proceedings were in session.  Her Worship, Judge Madeline Rousseau, presiding, the events would begin with a statement by the judge.

“I have examined the file and find it reasonable that the uncle of this boy wishes to adopt him. My understanding is that the parents of the boy passed away in a house fire while the boy was staying with his grandmother. Then, as if this affair wasn’t terrible enough, the grandmother died of a heart attack six months later while she was looking after the boy. Now the uncle wishes to adopt him. Is this information correct?”

The social worker said, “Yes, your Honor.”

Stepan Zarkovsky said, “Yes, your Honor.”

“I see no reason to delay ruling on this matter. What does the Ministry say?”

“We’ve not sufficient time for a proper assessment. Otherwise, we have no objections.”

“And how long would such an assessment take?”

“Your Honor,” Zarkovsky pleaded.

“Certainly within three months.”

“No, that is not acceptable. After what this boy has been through, institutionalizing him or fostering him could have negative consequences.”

“Your Honor,” the social worker spoke out.

“Allow me to finish. This boy needs security, a place he can call home, and the possibility of love and affection.” She turned to Zarkovsky. “You are asking the court to rule on this matter rather than following the rules established by the Ministry. I assume this is for the boy’s welfare. Is this true?”

“Yes, your Honor. I lost my brother in this fire. I have no more living relatives.” Zarkovsky’s voice quavered, and he applied a handkerchief to his eyes, dabbing at the sudden tears. “When I think of what this boy has gone through…Please let me parent him. A boy needs his own flesh and blood. And I have been unable to have children, it is…something I do not take lightly.” Zarkovsky pointed to the woman beside him. “My wife, Your Honor. We’re been married a year. She will be a mother to the boy.”

The judge nodded. “That’s good. Tell me, Mr. Zarkovsky…”

“Dr. Zarkovsky, Your Honor…” Zarkovsky interrupted with a shrug and an apologetic smile.

“You’re a medical doctor?”

“No, your Honor…”

“I see. Well, Mr. Zarkovsky, as I was saying, the Court wishes to know what employment you have.”

“I am working as a translator. The opportunities for someone with my background and a Ph.D. in philosophy are not so great. But I do speak and read and write fluently in Russian, Serbian, Polish, German as well as English and French. And I expect more opportunities to come once I register myself as an Interpreter.”

“Your wife works?”

“Yes, she is a nurse’s aide. She was a nurse in the Philippines, but must have her qualifications upgraded here before she can practice as a nurse.”

“Mrs. Zarkovsky,” the Judge addressed her with a softer tone. “Tell us how you feel about this situation.”

Elena Zarkovsky looked up from her gaze of the floor. ‘”It’s as my husband says, your Honour. We could be a family.”

“Could? An unusual use of words. Don’t you mean ‘will be a family’?”

“Yes, that is what I meant. I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous,” she said, her voice slipping into a stronger Filipino accent.

“That’s all right, Mrs. Zarkovsky.” The judge read from the file for a few seconds. “So, Mr. Zarkovsky, is there anything you wish to add?”

Zarkovsky wrung his hands and was barely able to restrain himself from standing up. “Yes, your Honor. Thank you. I’ve not been able to have children. My…my fault, I think. However, here is a situation where we can help each other. Zeno gets a home, and I get a son. I think that if there is flesh and blood, well there is nothing stronger than that. Wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s a factor,” the judge said. She turned to the boy, who was sitting straight and looking around slowly. “Zeno, do you understand what’s happening today?”

Zeno turned to the judge and looked at her without replying.

The social worker leaned towards him and whispered something urgently into his ear.

“Would you like to go live with your Uncle Stepan?” the judge asked.

“I live with my grandma,” he said, his voice was soft, as if it hadn’t been used in a while, yet clear, as if his mind was always attentive. “But my mummy’s coming home soon.”

“I see.” The judge looked at the social worker. “No one has had a proper conversation with this child. It’s evident.” She looked at the boy once more and spoke gently. “How old are you, Zeno?”

“I’m seven. But I’m going to be eight in nine weeks.”

“Are you looking forward to that?”

Zeno looked carefully at the judge, almost as if to see whether the judge could understand.  “I don’t know.”

“Do you like school?” the judge asked him.

“Like it?” Zeno mused on the question. “I don’t know. It’s a bit slow, but I guess it’s okay. I didn’t go before. I learned at home.”

The judge smiled. “What would you like to see?”

“Well, we’re just learning to write a sentence and we still read picture stories. I want to read more books by Dickens. I read A Christmas Carol in the library, but I want to read Oliver Twist. And I need some comic books, like The Green Hornet. I borrowed one from Etienne, but I need more. I also want some maps, and I want to do more math because I already can do my multiplication table to the twenties in my head, but it’s boring.”

“You’re in Grade Two?”

“Um, yes, I think so.”

“How much is 20 times 27?”

Zeno’s eyes closed for a moment. “Five hundred forty.”

The judge looked at the social worker again. “There are obviously more issues here than just housing and security. Unfortunately, this court only has the time to look at the immediate crisis.”

Judge Rousseau turned her attention once more to the boy.

“You won’t be able to go to your grandma’s house any more, Zeno. She was sick and she died, and she’s now in heaven. So, if you agree and if the Court agrees, you will be living with your uncle and aunt, and they look quite healthy. Your uncle and aunt are educated people, and I am sure they will assist you in your search for books of all kinds. Is that all right with you?”

Zeno looked at his uncle and then at his aunt. His shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly.  He slowly nodded. “Yes,” he said.

“Good. I am ready to rule on this matter. Despite the concerns of Children’s Services, I see no reason to subject this boy to any more disruption and heartache. He needs some stability. Children’s Services can continue an assessment and arrange for home visits, but, as of today, the Court rules that Stepan Zarkovsky is now the guardian of Zeno Zarkovsky and the adoption of Zeno should be expedited as quickly as possible, Zeno living with his uncle in the meantime. Zeno, you can go home with your uncle and aunt.”

As soon as the Clerk announced the end of the proceedings, the people in the room began to leave without saying anything to each other, but before they could move away form their chairs, Zeno darted out to the middle of the room. He dropped to his knees and gently scooped up the beetle into his other hand.

Outside the court building, Zeno Zarkovsky watched as he followed the dark, London Fog back of his uncle some ten feet ahead walking to the car. Elena Zarkovsky held Zeno’s hand, but the boy looked around as if his glances were a way of sniffing the air for predators that were not yet visible, and he was barely conscious of her grip.  His other hand was closed around the beetle, which had decided not to move. Aunt Elena seemed very tense, her walking pace stiff and her round face pinched, while her lips repeated some phrase. Zeno had the sense that he had permanently left a large wide place in his time with his grandmother and was walking towards a black tunnel holding the hand of an aunt he hadn’t known existed till just an hour before.

His uncle drove an older, yellow Buick, with numerous dents despite careful buffing and paint touch-ups. He checked his reflection in the window, arranged his tie so that it was firmly in place and climbed into the driver’s side. Aunt Elena hesitated for a moment, as if she wanted to climb into the back with Zeno, but after glancing at her husband who stared straight ahead while he gripped the steering wheel, she got into the front seat. Zeno sat with his hands folded on his lap and a single duffel bag beside him. He decided he would concentrate on the route, noting the street names and turns. He also liked to look for interesting moments, such as the time when a squealing fat man in a bow-tie tried to catch two white poodles that were running down the sidewalk after a jacketed Afghan dog. He didn’t know what moments like that meant, but he enjoyed recalling them and wanted to build a folder of them in his brain.

Uncle Stepan turned to his wife. “Tell him.”

Aunt Elena swallowed. “Your uncle would like to welcome you to his family, but you have to know that there are rules you will be expected to follow. The first rule is that there will be no unnecessary talking in the car. Your uncle often uses the time to solve important problems. The second rule is that you obey your uncle in all matters. Not obeying will be seen as betrayal. Do you understand?” As she spoke, Aunt Elena tried to use her eyes and the touch of her hand to soften the impact of the words, but Uncle Stepan seemed to sense this effort without taking his eyes from the road ahead. “Don’t baby him. He will have to learn to be a man.”

The journey took 34 minutes, Zeno saw from the clock on the dashboard, with a lot of traffic in the initial stages, but once they left the downtown core, the car moved up to the allowable maximum speed. They seemed to be heading west.  There were no amusing incidents to add to his folder. Zeno liked the maples, elms, and chestnut trees lining many of the streets. But they didn’t stop at any of these promising places, and instead turned to an area that had been stripped of all trees other than a much younger occasional ornamental cherry. The car stopped on a street of apartment buildings. Theirs was a solid five story redbrick structure. Uncle Stepan stood in front of the building as before a tourist destination.

“This is to be your new home. Sixty years old, but still strong. It still works. It may look like a shithouse from the outside, but inside it is respectable, and if it’s looked after, it will continue to look respectable.”

Zeno said nothing, but he bent and gently released the beetle in the flower bed.

“It’ll be dead by morning,” Uncle Stepan commented.

Aunt Elena moved to the front entrance and held the door open, and Zeno carried his bag to the elevator. They went to the third floor in silence. Uncle Stepan put a key into a solid oak door that said 303. Inside, Zeno saw that they had a corner apartment, so that the living room, dining room and kitchen had windows on two sides. There were three bedrooms, one of which Uncle Stepan showed him was an office that Zeno was to enter only when there were prescribed chores.

A rattling sound startled Zeno, as the three stood together as if they were in a church. “The pipes,” Aunt Elena explained. “We have a radiator heating system that uses water.”

“One of the things in the building,” Uncle Stepan added, and he dropped his body into a green sofa chair. “We have a coal-fired furnace in the basement and garburetors and an elevator that makes many sounds. You will learn to live with it the same as we all do.” He reached for a pipe on the mahogany-stained side table and began packing it with tobacco from a tin. “Tell him, Elena.,” he said, without looking at them.

“Give the boy a chance to at least unpack his bag.”

“Just make sure he’s told.”

Zeno’s bedroom was a small room with an iron bed, a night table, a chair, and a bureau. A small window showed another apartment building beside them. The walls were free of distractions. Zeno put the bag on the floor and sat on the bed. Elena touched him lightly on the shoulder.

“It will be all right if you listen to him.” She paused, looking at him with some emotion struggling in her face to emerge. “There are more rules. You will have to learn these rules quickly.” She lowered her voice. “I go to work every day at eight o‘clock.  But I’ll be back as quickly as I can, probably by six o’clock. Uncle Stepan wants you to keep your room clean.” She took a deep breath. “And he also wants you to keep the apartment clean. You also have to wash the bathroom and the kitchen especially carefully. I’ll show you how to do it after supper.”

He looked up at her carefully. “You miss your sister.”

She raised her eyebrows. “How did you know that?”

“You were thinking about her a few minutes ago and the way she loves to laugh with you.”

“I think you should not tell such things to people much, at least never in front of your Uncle.”

After Aunt Elena left, Zeno unpacked his bag. He put his change of clothes in the bureau and his set of crayons beneath them. He put his worn, brown teddy bear on the bed. He placed his four books on the night table. Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Jack and the Bean Stalk. All four had illustrations that kept Zeno entranced for several minutes each time he came across them. Jack and the Bean Stalk was the shortest, but he kept re-visiting it like someone might revisit a natural scene that provided inspiration and hope.

That night Zeno went to bed early though he couldn’t sleep. At his grandmother’s house, he’d put pictures he’d drawn of his mother and father on the wall of his room, but he dared not do anything like that here. So he took a pencil and made two tiny dots on the wall by his pillow. Over one he wrote a very small M and over the other a very small D. At his grandmother’s house, he’d often talk to the pictures and fill them in on his day. Here, he’d satisfy himself with just looking at the dots and imagining their faces.

While he was staying at his grandmother’s house, Zeno had thought about imagination.  What was it? The pictures in his head? He’d heard his grandma and other people, as well, say, “that’s just your imagination.” Imagination was supposed to mean something unreal. Like a giraffe with wings.  Like Donald Duck. Like giants. But what of the pictures and scenes that unfolded like movies when he closed his eyes and concentrated on a specific violet spot? The spot began to spin and soon opened up like a flower. Within a moment he was in a new world. Or in a different part of this world across the ocean. The new world wasn’t a dream, because everything was crisp and clear, and when it was necessary, like when someone called him or when he’d had enough watching, Zeno could simply leave this inner world and return to the “real” world, where things were not quite as bright. Zeno didn’t know what this inner world was if it wasn’t a dream and it wasn’t reality. It was something he’d have to study.

He awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of a voice. Zeno got up and went to investigate, but he stopped at the entrance to the kitchen and living room space. The apartment was in darkness, except for a cone of light illuminating his uncle sitting in front of a large framed oval mirror that resided on its own table in the living room. In one hand he had a glass of some clear liquid that he drank down and then re-filled from a vodka bottle. He stared into the mirror as if he were talking to someone.

“Mister Zarkovsky? Not Doctor Zarkovsky. No, that judge bitch wouldn’t give me that respect because that would mean she’d have to accept me as an equal. They’re all the same. But what do they know of the world? They’ve fucked their way into these jobs and don’t know how the world really operates. They don’t know about power. Judges like her know as much about the world as a 10 year old farm girl. People like her who’ve kept me down. But that will change. That will change.”

– End of Chapter One –

 

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