Yes, this was her house many years ago, when she was still Xenia. The things you see here—the few furnishings, the books and mementos—they are mine. I have sold and given away much; only a little remains. A feather. This stone with a white ring round it. A bird’s skull. Look how delicate it is, thinner than porcelain. This scrap of gold lace from the sleeve of a court dress. I have reached an age when I can see how little all my possessions were worth and even to feel them as a burden on my soul. But the effort to rid myself of it all . . . as Xenia once said, the things of the world cling like vines.
As it happens, this is doubly true of those possessions which are immaterial—the griefs and fears, my reason which I have prized beyond measure, the memories that feel like the sum of me. I am not a holy fool who can give these up.
The earliest memory—blackness, and in this blackness the sound of church bells clanging wildly—it is of her coming. Clambering down from the bed I share with my nyanya, a treacherous descent in the dark, I go to the window. The dusky summer sky is shimmering. Orange, violet, red—the northern lights pulse and flare—and in the street, a man falls to his knees and crosses himself. People are shouting, their words a blur but infused with unmistakable urgency. A riderless white horse careens into view. It rears up and then races on, its tail and mane flying like ragged sails behind it. Frightened, I return to the bed and press my body against Olga’s. The next image is that of our bedroom door bursting open and through it, an enormous wolf entering. The wolf says, quite calmly, that its house is afire.
For years, I believed this to be an uncommonly vivid dream. It was only much later, upon hearing my nurse talking about events long past—as old ones are wont to do, as I am doing even now—that I recognized in her story certain unmistakable features of my dream.
There was a terrible fire late in the summer of 1736, the sixth year of Her Imperial Majesty Anna Ioannovna’s reign and the fourth year of my life. The fire was said to have begun in a stable near what is now Sadovaya Street, but it spread like a storm through the city. People fled their homes with only those few things they could carry, icons and tableware, a handful of jewelry, whatever they had snatched up in their alarm. One man was seen dragging his bed through the street. An old woman was found in her nightclothes, clutching a squawking goose to her breast. There was no fire brigade then, nor means to draw water from the canals, and in the end over two thousand houses were lost. What I mistook for the northern lights was the entire Admiralty district being consumed by flames.
What I took for a wolf was Xenia. Her mother had escaped their home carrying a daughter in her arms, five rubles in a velvet purse, and a sausage that had been hanging on the larder door. She crossed the pontoon bridge over the Neva, her elder daughter and a servant trailing behind, and walked until she came upon a house she knew, belonging to her husband’s cousin. They arrived at our doorstep in the middle of the night. The houseman carried Xenia to my bed, still bundled in a fur lap robe and slung on his shoulder.
“You shrieked at the sight of her,” Olga told me later. “I could not calm you.”
After the fire, Olga’s place in the bed was taken by Xenia and her sister, Nadya. Their father and mine were off fighting the Turks, and so while the city was rebuilding they lived with us. By Olga’s account, I slept fitfully for weeks afterwards, plagued by night terrors. What I recall is the sound of howling. Petersburg was much smaller then, muddy and raw and shadowed by forest, and at night one might still hear wolves. I could not help myself, I clutched at Xenia because my nurse was not there. I whimpered to her my fear that the wolves were coming to eat us.
“They are not hungry,” she whispered. “They are singing.”
I was not so easily mollified. It did not sound like singing.
“That is because you are not a wolf. Listen. She is singing of how lonesome she is.” The long wail did indeed sound bereft. After a while, a second voice joined the first. “There, her mate is answering. It must be a very beautiful sound to her.”
She twined her arms round me. “I am here, Dashenka. You are not alone.” On the word “alone,” she made her voice rise into a howl. I giggled.
“Now you answer,” she said.
“You must sing, too.”
I answered her howls with my own until Nadya snapped at us to be still and let her sleep.
It was intended that they stay only until their father returned, but he perished the following year at the storming of Ochakiv. Their future was resettled in that moment. They remained, and I forgot that there had ever been a time before them.
Whatever we know as children, this is the world, eaten whole and without question. So it was with Xenia: I did not think her strange, though an accounting of her features alone would set her apart. She was tall and thin as a willow slip, her nose and chin were rather too sharp, and her pale hair so fine that it continually escaped ribbons and combs. When she moved, wisps lifted and floated about her head, giving her the unkempt and airy appearance of a dandelion blown to seed. Following the science of physiognomy, one might discover her character by this and also by her eyes, which were uncommonly bright but of no definite hue, being very green in one light but the color of hazelnuts in another.
I am reminded of a curiosity we saw as children, housed in the Kunstkamera. This device resembled a sailor’s eyeglass. However, peering into the eyepiece, one did not view the ordinary world beyond the glass. Improbably, the horizon filled with brightly colored shards of light, a brilliant mosaic that could be made to break apart and re-form into endless new patterns simply by turning a small knob. It did not seem possible that a narrow brass tube could contain so huge and magnificent a wonder, and yet it did.
Some few days after we visited the museum, I remember, Xenia picked up a feather from the ground and was as giddy as if she had found a ruby in the dirt.
She held it up to the light. “Look.”
It is a raven’s feather, I thought. My countenance must have shown my ignorance.
“It is black, but look what happens.” She rolled the quill slowly between her fingers. “Do you see it, the blue? And now emerald . . .” Colors shimmered on its oily surface. “And there is purple! And even red. It is like the Kaleidoscope!”
I saw then that it was an astonishing feather.
When I parroted her admiration, she handed it to me without a blink. “It is yours,” she said. In this same manner, she later gifted me with the bird’s skull and the skipping stone and various insects and wildflowers—my own museum of wonders and curiosities.
What consumed her one moment was forgotten in the next, but while in the grip of a passion, she could not be swayed from it, no matter how reckless. She ate wild mushrooms without first bringing them home for Olga to inspect. She approached mangy cats and dogs in the street and would coax into friendly submission even those who warned her off with low growls or arched backs. None ever bit her, but the reward for her undiscriminating friendliness was that she smelled of garlic from Olga continually treating her for ringworm.
One summer, when we were at my family’s country house, she determined that the view of the river must be incomparable from the vantage of a particular tree limb stretching out over the water. She knotted her smock round her waist and, catching at a low branch, shimmied up the trunk to a high limb and then to a higher one yet.
“Oh, Dasha,” she cried. “It is even finer than I imagined. This must be how angels view the world. I wonder if I can see our house.” She wriggled like a caterpillar out on the limb until she was perched high over the fast water.
“I am an angel,” she proclaimed, and held her arms out from her sides like wings.
When she fell, the water closed over her and she disappeared. I splashed into the river and stopped shin-deep, stricken. A little farther downriver she reemerged, gasping and thrashing at the surface, then sank and did not come up again.
Like Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, I was still gazing on the place where she had last gone down when I heard her call out.
“Here I am.”
Turning, I saw her staggering up the towpath. Her wet smock was pasted onto her dripping skin, and she alternated between coughing and laughing.
“I am a fallen angel.”
A world that has angels must also have its demons. In the way of children, rank within our little society was determined by our relative ages. By virtue of a year, Xenia’s sister, Nadya, might order us about and strike us without cause, and she was not shy to do either.
One of our pastimes was to reenact stories we had heard from our mothers. Nadya played a grand duchess or a German princess, Xenia was the noble lady’s younger sister or a lady-in-waiting, and I was cast as a servant. My little brother, Vanya, served as was needed for a pet spaniel or monkey. In whatever configuration, though, the game turned on Nadya’s being endlessly demanding and capricious. She might send one of us to fetch something, a ribbon for her hair or a tray of sweetmeats, but when we returned with the imaginary item, invariably the ribbon was the wrong color—she wanted the green, not the yellow—the sweets were inferior, and she had not asked for her pet monkey after all but for her parrot.
Once, she asked me to bring a letter that had recently been sent her by an admirer. Dutifully, I left our room, waited a bit, and then returned with the imaginary missive.
“Well, where is it?” Nadya demanded.
“Here, my lady,” I said, and pretended to pinch something between my thumb and forefinger.
“No, fool. The letter I want is in the drawer of my dressing table. It is tied with a blue ribbon.”
I broke the spell of the game. “Do you mean my father’s letter?” I whispered, like an actor seeking a prompt.
She glared at me with convincing menace. “My letter. Bring it here this instant, before I lose patience.”
I remained motionless, considering whether to go out into the passage and try again. She rebuked me with a slap. “Go!” she shrieked.
I ran to my mother’s dressing room and slid open the drawer. Inside was a fine handkerchief of embroidered linen that had been given to her by Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna when my mother left her service to be married. Next to this was the packet of letters written by my father. The most recent had arrived only the previous day. My mother had sent for the priest to read it to her and take down a reply, and afterwards had put it away here, together with the others.
I hesitated. On occasion, I had been allowed to open the drawer and look at the handkerchief, but never to disturb the contents. If I were discovered, I would be punished, but if I did not return to Nadya with the letter I should also be punished. Weighing the two dangers, I chose to dodge that which was nearer. I slipped the thin envelope from the top of the packet and carried it back to Nadya.
“Here, my lady.”
She took it from me and opened the envelope. Glancing cursorily over the paper, Nadya read aloud: “ ‘To the most beautiful lady in all of Russia—’ ”
“Is that what it says?” I asked.
“But I mean, truly?”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
I did not know how Nadya might have learnt to read. Still, it was the accepted condition of being youngest that everyone was gifted with knowledge unavailable to me.
“ ‘To the most beautiful lady in all of Russia,’ ” she began again. The letter went on to proclaim my father’s admiration in many florid phrases. He pleaded that my mother send some sign that his affection was reciprocated.
I had no memory of my father, though he had been a constant, unseen presence in our household. His name was repeated in our daily prayers, and when any decision was to be made, my mother invoked him, wondering aloud if Nikolai Feodosievich would approve of this or that.
“ ‘If you do not care for me,’ ” Nadya continued to read, “ ‘I shall surely die.’ ”
I was caught in the spell of hearing his words and peered over her shoulder that I might see them as well. “What is this?” I asked, pointing to an intriguing shape like a rowboat reflected on water.
“That? That means ‘send.’ ”
“That is ‘die.’ It’s simple,” Nadya said. “Look.” She drew her finger slowly under a line of mysterious strokes and curls and pronounced their meaning. “ ‘To the most beautiful princess in all of the Russias.’ Now you read it.”
I tried to link the images to words, but what had meant “send” in one line meant something else in the next.
“It is the same words,” Nadya snapped. “ ‘To the most beautiful princess . . .’ Just repeat what I say.”
But I wanted to read it for myself. I stared fixedly at the place where Nadya pointed and saw what looked like snippets of black hair. Flour laced with weevils. A regiment of tiny soldiers on new snow. But no meaning in any of it. The insects on the page blurred.
“Look!” Nadya pointed to an inky puddle on the paper.
“Now you have spoilt it.”
I began to cry in earnest.
“Be quiet,” Nadya snarled. “They will hear you.” Her warning served only to raise the pitch of my wailing. She pulled off one of her shoes and raised it threateningly. “I said be quiet. Do you want a whipping?”
Xenia also tried to quiet me. “Don’t take it to heart, Dashenka. It was only pretend. Nadya can’t read either.”
When Nadya turned and struck her across the cheek, Xenia did not cry out or even flinch. Oddly, her silence enraged Nadya all the more, who struck her again and then again with more force as though to jar loose some response.
I closed my eyes but could not shut out the sound, over and over, of leather on flesh. Then it slowed and stopped.
When I peeked through my fingers, they stood just as they had, Nadya with the shoe raised above her head, and Xenia facing her, but Xenia . . . How may I tell this? Though her flesh was pocked with welts, she looked as though she had eaten something airy and sweet and was still holding the taste on her tongue.
Nadya’s hand began to tremble, and she could not meet Xenia’s bright gaze without glancing away again. As though Xenia were willing it, she slowly lowered her arm.
I could not see it then, any more than one can see the pattern on the back side of a tapestry. A knight, a swan, a ring of flowers—on the reverse they are only a muddle of color, the woof and warp of tangled threads picked up and then dropped again.
We passed them in the streets, poor senseless wretches talking to the air. These were women without husbands or children, without any history to lend them meaning. So far as we knew, they had always been there. One amongst these, whom Olga called the Blessed One, lived on the steps of the church. She was always in this same place, wrapped in a filthy sheepskin. Olga would bring her a dish of kasha or a sardine and set it at her feet, but the old woman never thanked her or acknowledged by a look that she knew us. She stared straight before her like a horse asleep on its feet, or she ranted to unseen presences whom she accused of terrible crimes. Olga said we must show her pity, but she was terrifying, bedraggled and toothless, and it was like trying to find pity for a toad or a wolf.
As we were coming out of the church one morning, the old woman suddenly reached out and caught hold of Xenia. Pinned, Xenia thrashed and tried to escape her grip, but the old one held fast and, by looking into Xenia’s eyes, seemed to enchant her into stillness.
“This one sees,” the old woman pronounced.
Olga crossed herself. “What? What does she see, Blessed One?”
The old woman released Xenia’s wrist. “Ask her yourself.”
But Xenia was wide-eyed with terror. She stared back at the Blessed One and would not answer.
At the time, I assumed she was afraid of the old woman. Now I wonder if she was not more afraid of what the old woman saw in her.