Copyright 2018 Cindy Brandner
(This particular bit is from very early in Yevgena’s story).
In our house, there was one corner of enchantment, however, which I loved in particular. It was in the root cellar, well hidden behind burlap bags filled with potatoes, carrots and onions. A magic portal existed there behind those bags, for there was a small library, no more than a hovel dug in the earth, but containing all the riches of Byzantium in my estimation. Banned books, two full shelves of them. Books from the West, books which seemed to hold the perfume of far off places—America, England, India, Africa. When I sat in there, with my lantern, sweater hugged tightly about me, I didn’t live in Communist Russia, instead I roamed the streets of Victorian London, took tea in the British Raj, climbed mountains with Burton, went mad with Raskolnikov, and fell in love at a grand ball with Anna and Vronsky. It was dangerous to have books from the banned list, in fact the banned list changed often enough, that at times it was dangerous to have anything other than Soviet propaganda tracts.
It was in that little grotto of enchantment that I was planning to spend my afternoon one day late in April, with my lantern and a few apples, reading about Candide fleeing into Paraguay, with his servant, Cacambo. I’d put the book down at a crucial point and was eager to return to it. My mother put paid to that notion at lunch, though, by telling me over tea that we were expecting company later in the afternoon, and I would need to be nicely dressed and make certain my hair was combed. I scowled, pushing my hair out of my eyes. Nothing good had ever come of my mother insisting my hair be combed.
“You will be in the parlour, washed, dressed and with your hair up at three o’clock, Yevgena.” She returned my scowl with interest, over the top of the delicate teacup she held.
My mother rarely commanded me in such a tone, and I knew to protest would still end with me doing exactly as she’d told me to.
Accordingly, I presented myself in the parlour ten minutes past the time I’d been commanded to show myself. It was a small act of defiance, but those were all I had in those days. I wore the dress my mother had left out—a summer dress of blue lawn with a delicate print of pink roses. It was not the most flattering dress, for I looked better, I knew, in bold colours. My mother, however, had a distaste for bright colours and designs, and preferred to put me in pale cottons and silks. I did not care to be attractive this afternoon though, so I put the frock on and went down to meet our company. I’d braided my hair, contrary to my mother’s command, however. My hair, I will admit, was my one true vanity. Thick and black, it hung in a shiny fall to my waist. My mother would not be happy that I’d left it down, but I didn’t care. I would present myself—for I had no choice in the matter—but not entirely as she wished.
One of those small premonitory shivers went through me just before I entered the room, a small voice which said, Be wary of what lies ahead.
I believe we all have rooms in our head, rooms in which we keep small memory paintings, ones so perfect in detail and light, that they might have been painted by a Dutch Master. There is a stillness in those rooms, a stillness like you find in a church— that perfect hush which speaks to something sacred. The memory is held so exactly, that it appears a painting, static limned in gold, with brush strokes so tiny that you can’t even see them with an eyeglass, but which you know are there all the same. The parlour that afternoon, hangs whole in my memory. I can see my grandmother’s shawl over the back of the big armchair, the embroidered spirals of roses and briars, and the rising fire bird, bright as drops of blood, against the thick wool of the shawl. The spring light was so pure that day, that it was tinged green where it fell through the long windows, and the trees beyond shimmering in their new mist of unfurling leaves.
The scene was laid out like something Vermeer might have painted—formal, aligned and caught fast in time’s amber, with that pure attention to minute detail. It was all very proper—the gleaming samovar and the floury white tea cakes, the dish of raspberry jam and the delicate porcelain of the tea cups, a-glow with the heat of the tea. It was my great-grandmother’s tea set and had travelled with her from Poland to her marriage home in Arkangelsk. It was old and fragile, and my mother only took it out for truly special occasions, and very special company. Even my favourite piece of china was on display—a chipped bleu celeste Sevres ice-pail, inset with delicate cameos, which my father claimed had been given to my great great grandmother on the paternal side, by Catherine the Great, in exchange for having her fortune told. He’d added that it wasn’t a story I should share with my mother, as the beloved pail might disappear as a result. I didn’t understand his warning at the time, but many years later I would and would wish he’d told me the truth—all of it, from the beginning.
My mother’s company was a man. A man in a well-tailored, if severe, suit with the palest blue eyes I’d ever seen. He stood as I came in, smiling, though it was a cold smile, and didn’t stretch beyond his thin lips. He was nearly the age of my parents, and I was confused as to why my mother would want me present for company which was clearly hers.
I could tell merely by the dishes used that this man was important, and important meant high up in the Communist Party. There was a tightness to his aspect, to the rigid way he held his body, and even to his movement as he stood when I entered the room. I knew he was military, even though he wasn’t in uniform that day. He wore the air of cold command that so many of our leaders seemed to have.
“Yevgena,” my mother said, casting a despairing look at my plaited hair, “this is Commander Mikhail Egorov, Commander, my daughter, Yevgena Vasiliovich."
He bowed over my hand and kissed it, and I might have been touched by his old-fashioned courtliness, had his lips not been so cold that they sent a shiver straight through to my soul. I wanted to yank my hand away from him but knew I could not do such a thing without incurring the wrath of my mother. I sat down as soon as I could, for my knees were shaking, and he, formal and correct, waited until both my mother and I were seated before he too, sat down on the chair opposite me. My sight was blurred, as though a cold fog had gathered in the room, shrouding both sofa and piano, chairs and rugs, plants and porcelain. The man alone remained in a sharp clarity in the centre of my vision. My mother had called him Commander, and I knew the title was reserved for those high up in the various branches of the military. After the revolution, all military ranking had been abolished but due to necessity the idea of rank had crept slowly back into the Army, though the titles were general rather than specific for a few years, and rank was most easily discerned by the bars on the man’s uniform rather than his title. This man however was no mere division or battalion commander—my mother wasn’t likely to put out Catherine the Great’s ice pail for anything less than a Supreme Commander. Thus, he was powerful in both the military and the party—in short, he was a man to be reckoned with. He was of an average height, with a strong jawline and blond hair which was buzzed in the military fashion, and the pale blue eyes which are like ice, freezing you fast as an insect which has blundered into a pot of frost skimmed water. He was of the sort who took up all the space around him, and was clearly aware of his own power, but also very comfortable with it. I felt a humming fear begin to slide along my nerves.