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/xiao xue

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Tolstoy & I

after Aria Aber

“I’ve fallen in love or imagine I have; went to a party and lost my head. Bought a horse which I don’t need at all.”​ —Leo Tolstoy, January 25, 1851

I’ve fallen in love.​ Or perhaps​—​it was just a trick of the light, a sudden bout of lightheadedness, the stretched skin of a navel orange at the edge of a nail.

Or perhaps you have fallen in love. With just the right combinations of metaphors. Hit with a summer full of cicadas. Caught in the quiet lust of a burning bush. All your life, you’ve only ever seen the nice ones that cover suburban home windows.

Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in thepresent has not love, ​Tolstoy wrote.

There: Tolstoy falls in love with Sonya in 1861. They exchange diary entries in place of love letters. Manifesting fifty miserable years of obsession, out came thirteen children​—​three dead​—​and thousands of copies of manuscripts, all in Sonya’s handwriting.

Here: the universe is the size of an upstairs sunroom. Here sits a boy who looks like he would taste like a handful of salted peanuts. Or, a spoonful of blueberry yogurt. Instead of diary entries, we exchange dry elbows, soft eyes. I am distracted by what sounds like the slow soprano of a train in the distance. Sometimes I worry that this is all there is. Is this all there is? Sometimes I’m grateful.

Somewhere: A girl I once loved read a poem to a crowd. She says: ​What can I say about love that hasn’t been said before?​ Her voice, three years away. Her hair, a burning bush.

My mother told me that when a young woman stepped into a well in her village back home, love was the suspect. ​It contaminated the water for weeks. ​A phrase I have never heard used to describe love before.

Tolstoy, my stubborn tempest: your words float out here like a spectacle and I am desperate for answers.

Tolstoy, my lonely idealist: Like Sonya, most days I feel like I’ve already given too much away. Your love was always in the future. How did we get it so wrong? Sonya spent years in the present, chasing after your shadow. I’ve spent lifetimes in the past, in the hands of men like you​—​darkroom eyes and an affinity for trains, always headed somewhere else.

My dear Tolstoy, if we fell in love today, who’s to say we wouldn’t make it. Who’s to say you won’t get on a train to leave me, too. That it won’t kill you. That it isn’t love. Who’s to say I won’t have years and years beyond that. That I won’t grasp for it, with fingers covered in salt.

Or imagine I have ​more hours than minutes, which is what it feels like these days. I like to pull up all the blinds in my house every morning. Through the windows, the sunlight sticks to the linoleum floor as if it’s planning to stay there for years. The blue house next door also has open windows. I imagine someone is watching me undress. Peel oranges. Cook eggs. Stick a finger into the dirt of each potted plant, checking for moisture.

Some might call this ​exhibitionism​. But like any obedient daughter, I just want to be seen. Look! Here is somebody’s daughter. She can write in English, pay her own rent, fold dumplings by the dozen. Look! Here is somebody’s daughter, full of merlot and lemon vodka, in a stranger’s car, mouth as warm as a wound.

Tolstoy, do you ever feel like the world is just a room that you’re just looking into. That you were never allowed full access to your own body, your own head​—​and the most you could ever do was hope for open windows.

Tolstoy, did you write to your mother? Your father? You certainly wrote to God. And If nobody is watching me from that blue-blue house, then surely God is. That’s what I was promised, anyway.

Proverbs 5:51: ​The Lord sees everything you do. Wherever you go, he is watching.​ Ensuring that in every version of the story, there is at least one witness. My God. My captive audience​—​he watches me squish a bug against the glass, ignore a phone call from a friend, cry for hours about nothing in particular. Is he bored? Disappointed? Misunderstood?

Tolstoy felt just as guilty as the rest of us, if not more. He spent his entire life trying to be better. He limited his brothel visits to just twice a month. In his journals, he exercised extensive moral improvement and self-criticism, labeling his actions with what God might view as moral weaknesses.

He wrote this entry on March 24, 1851: ​Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write(sloth). Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice).

Dear heavenly father: I confess. I, too, sleep in late (sloth). Read sometimes, write not enough (sloth). I say I love you, but I don’t always mean it (cowardice). I am a good daughter, but sometimes I’m a better whore (lust). And sometimes desire feels more like a virtue than a sin (pride). I want the taut, smooth skin of a wet boiled egg (vanity). I want the revolution to take the bullet out of my great-grandpa’s head(greed). I want my parents to live forever (greed). I want to gather all those I’ve lost in the folds of my skirt, like the wind, and keep them there (greed).

I want to see them. I want them to see me.

Imagine: God is simply amused. There are no other expectations.

Went to a party​ in February without a thought in the world. No plans to be one of the heartbroken or dead by morning. There is a crow that knows my name. Every time I escape a party, I run across the street. I step on the walnuts they drop for 18-wheelers. We wait together.

Every spring is an uncertain one. A girl has sex behind the alter of the local Methodist Church. A girl dies from an overdose. A girl steps off the edge of a four story building. A girl dies in a car crash.

Today, I want to live. Tomorrow, you want to die. Tuesday, many years later, my mom calls about a boy I was sure I’d fall in love with, just ten more years into the future—gone. Unknown causes. His mother asked mine if I was well.

Tolstoy was obsessed with dying in the same way he was obsessed with trains. It was fitting that he began dying on a train and died at a train station. The heroine of Anna Karenina jumps in front of a train. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to die by a window.

Nevertheless, I went to a party. Nobody talked about Leo Tolstoy or trains or the girl who drowned in Big Creek in 2014. It was an 80’s themed party and I had the hair. I had the hat. It was late spring. We were young. There was plenty of boxed wine to share. The flowers outside were heavy with yearning and nobody wanted to die, not really. Not yet.

A headline pops up: “Van Gogh Painting stolen from a Dutch Museum in Early Morning Heist.” I am startled because I think I recognize it. I wonder when I saw it last? Who stole it? What did the glass sound like when it shattered? Why was nobody watching?

I imagine there has never been a day where I doubted love looks like this. The knowledge of what we have and what could be taken from us.

Tolstoy was so intrigued by the process of dying that he wrote a book about it, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But perplexed that he could only imagine it from the perspective of a living man—he asked his friends to quiz him about his own experience once he was on his deathbed.

Clever Tolstoy. He even devised a code of eye movements in case he could not coherently voice his testimony about death. And even though there were crowds of people watching at the Astapovo train station that day—in their distress, those questions were never asked.

Sonya was there, too. Peering through the window to get a final glance.

In my version of the story: Tolstoy, abandoning his eye-movement testimony, takes one last look at her, too.

And lost my head​—​as I do sometimes. Don’t be alarmed.

I also go quiet for days. Sometimes I smell like smoke. There are moments where I want to be as expansive as a lake, empty as a jar. Men tell me I remind them of their daughters. Ask if they can touch my hair. Ask me if Marx is my daddy. If Mao is. They ask if I am a socialist. If I would share everything I had with them. I turn red as brick.

With my lemon cream privilege, I harbor the famine of 1959. I harbor the woman all twisted up for love at the bottom of the well. I harbor my grandpa’s voice singing me to sleep with love songs for the revolution, every night until he dies, or the day I become one​—​guess which came first.

Have you lost your head? ​Is probably what Sonya said to Tolstoy, after finding out he wants to give away all his money. She searched desperately​—​for his will, not his head​—​to make sure her children were left with more than just words.

The Soviets, on the other hand, placed his head at the center of their ideology. Lenin loved his “pent-up hatred” against the church, the police, the army, meat eating, and private property. They ignoredTolstoy’s love for God, then made him a mirror for the revolution.

In the mirror: I am smitten. I am bleeding. I am always at a loss for words.

In the mirror: You are more uncertain than I expected. But unforgettable. All you have are words.

I get it, Tolstoy. It’s easy to see who is more favored by a country in apocalyptic times. It’s harder to explain to my grandma why her father had to die.

Tolstoy, my fervent revolutionist: did you want your head back, or were you sick of it? Are you a hopeless romantic or a terrible husband? Did you love your country or do you hate what they’ve made of you? Were you obsessed with trains, or do they haunt you like an illness? Is love a well that you fall into, or one you climb out of? Is desire a moral weakness, or is it all we have? Am I a good daughter? AmI a dutiful citizen? Do I understand the cost of revolution? If so, why do I still taste it in my mouth. Why do I want more?

In our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself,​ Tolstoy wrote.

How does one separate self from humanity?

The irony floats like a spectacle​—​just within arms reach.

Bought a horse which I don’t need at all. ​Bought an orange turtleneck which I don’t need at all. Bought too many blueberries which will go bad in approximately four minutes which I don’t need at all.

I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence, ​Tolstoy wrote.

Like a good daughter, I pretend that I can sit still, balance cups of tea on a tray. I pretend to want two children, four lemon trees and just one country; which I will love regardless of how many skeletons are needed to produce a suburban fence, white and clean as snow.

Like a good daughter, I will map out every escape route, open every window.

Dearest Tolstoy: trains​ are ​faster than horses. But either way, what were you hoping to run away to? A quiet life? Why did you bring just one daughter, Aleksandra? Did she remind you of Sonya when she was young?

Perhaps if you got to your destination, I would be the one waiting for you. And that’s when we’d fall in love. You will look for my diaries, and I will give you an empty jar. You will shake your fists at the corrupt government of our country and I will chuckle softly, ​my dear Tolstoy,​​ we have no country. We only have our deathbed, a jar of pickled radishes, and each other. ​And instead of finding Sonya in my eyes, you find a mirror: Smitten. Bleeding. At a loss for words.

It can seem self-indulgent in its introspection (the usual fault of spiritual autobiographies, however self-critical they set out to be)….while touching, seems also naively romantic, one critic wrote ofTolstoy’s work.

My dearest Tolstoy: Arrogant anarchist. Naively romantic. You are everywhere.

There: You do not reach me. You hold Sonya in your eyes and imagine empty wells. When you felt that cold tap on the shoulder, you must have been ecstatic. Or confused. Perhaps the first-hand experience of death wasn’t the last thing you needed after all? Perhaps what you needed then and there​— ​was a horse?

Here: ​I might be falling in love with Tolstoy, ​I confess to the burning bush. ​Too bad he can’t love me back.

Somewhere: God is simply amused, looking down at Tolstoy and I. There are no other expectations.


Xiao Xue is a poet who recently graduated from the University of Kansas, but can’t seem to decide where she’s “from” at the moment. At the very beginning, it was Xinjiang, China. Now she lives in Kansas City, Missouri with a very sweet baker and and a very old cat at the site of a former shoe factory. There were many places in between, and all of them were home. Xue has been published in Kiosk Magazine, Stone of Madness Press, and Indigo Literary Journal, and hopes to be forthcoming somewhere someday soon.

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