“Not, not mine; it’s somebody else’s wound.
I could never have borne it. So take the thing
that happened, hide it, stick it in the ground.
Whisk the lamps away…
On the banks of the mighty Columbia River, in this icy season when every breath became visible, the orchard called Belye Nochi was quiet. Dormant apples trees stretched as far as the eye could see, their sturdy roots coiled deep in the cold, fertile soil. As temperatures plummeted and color drained from land and sky, the whitened landscape caused a kind of winter blindness; one day became indistinguishable from the next. Everything froze, turned fragile.
Nowhere was the cold and quiet more noticeable than in Meredith Whitson’s own house. At twelve, she had already discovered the empty spaces that gathered between people. She longed for her family to be like those she saw on television, where everything looked perfect and everyone got along. No one, not even her beloved father, understood how alone she often felt within these four walls, how invisible.
But tomorrow night, all of that would change.
She had come up with a brilliant plan. She had written a play based on one of her mother’s fairy tales, and she would present it at the annual Christmas party. It was exactly the kind of thing that would happen on an episode of The Partridge Family.
“How come I can’t be the star?” Nina whined. It was at least the tenth time she’d asked this question since Meredith had finished the script.
Meredith turned around in her chair and looked down at her nine-year-old sister, who was crouched on the wooden floor of their bedroom, painting a mint green castle on an old bed sheet.
Meredith bit her lower lip, trying not to frown. The castle was all wrong. Too bright, too bold, too messy. It would have to be fixed. She got up, holding the treasured script in her hand, and went to her sister, kneeling beside her. “We’ve talked about this, Nina.”
“But why can’t I be the peasant girl who marries the prince?”
“Jeff is playing the prince and he’s thirteen. You’d look silly next to him. And besides, your part is important, Neens. Without the younger sister, the prince and the peasant girl would never meet.”
“I guess.” Nina put her paintbrush in the empty soup can and sat back on her heels. With her short, tangled black hair, bright green eyes, and pale skin, she looked like a perfect little pixie. “Can I be the peasant girl next year?”
Meredith put an arm across Nina’s narrow, bony back. “Of course.” She loved the idea that she might be creating a family tradition. All of her friends had traditions, but not the Whitsons; they had always been different. There was no stream of relatives who came to their house on holidays, no turkey on Thanksgiving or ham on Easter, like everyone else she knew, no prayers that were always said. Heck, they didn’t even know for sure how old their mom was.
It was because Mom was Russian, and alone in this country. Or, at least that was what Dad said. Mom didn’t say much of anything about herself.
A knock at the door surprised Meredith. She looked up just as Jeff Cooper and her father came into the room.
Meredith felt like one of those long, floppy balloons being slowly filled with air, taking on a new form with each breath, and in this case, the breath was Jeffrey Cooper.
“Jeff,” she said, her voice catching only the smallest amount. Her cheeks grew hot at the obviousness of his effect on her. They’d been best friends since fourth grade, but lately it felt different to be around him. Sometimes when he looked at her, she could barely breathe. “You’re right on time for rehearsal.”
He gave her one of his heart-stopping smiles. “Just don’t tell Joey and the guys. They’d give me a ton of crap for this.”
“About rehearsal,” her dad said, stepping forward. He had just come home from work, and he was still wearing his favorite brown leisure suit with the bell bottoms and the orange top stitching. His curly black hair reached the collar, and his bushy moustache made it hard to tell if he were smiling. He held out the script. “This is the play you’re doing?”
Meredith got slowly to her feet. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
Nina stood up. Her heart-shaped face was uncharacteristically solemn. “Will she?”
The three of them looked at each other over the expanse of the Picasso-style green castle dand the costumes laid out across the bed. Meredith found herself leaning forward expectantly. The truth they passed between themselves, in looks alone, was that Anya Whitson was a cold woman; any warmth she had was directed at her husband and even her neighbors and friends. Precious little of it reached her daughters. When they were younger, Dad had tried to pretend it was otherwise, to redirect their attention like a magician, mesmerizing them with the brightness of his affection, but like all illusions, the truth ultimately appeared behind it.
So they all knew what Meredith was asking.
“I don’t know, Meredoodle,” Dad said, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. “Your mother’s stories --- ”
“I love it when she tells them to us,” Meredith said.
“It’s the only time she really talks to us,” Nina added.
Dad lit a cigarette and stared at them through a swirl of gray smoke, his brown eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” he said, exhaling. “It’s just…”
Meredith moved toward him, careful not to step on the painting. She understood his hesitation; none of them ever really knew what would set Mom off, but this time Meredith was sure she had the answer. If there was one thing her mother loved, it was this fairy tale. “It only takes ten minutes, Dad. I timed it. Everyone will love it.”
He hesitated, almost as if he wanted to tell her that this brilliant idea to stage a play during the company Christmas party was a mistake, but she knew that in the end, he’d give in. He loved her too much to say no.
“Okay, then,” he said finally.
She felt a swell of pride. And hope. It would work. For once she wouldn’t spend the party in some shadowy corner of the living room, reading, or in the kitchen, washing dishes. Instead, she would be the center of her mother’s attention. This play would prove that Meredith had listened to every precious word Mom had ever said to her, even those few that were spoken softly, in the dark, at story time.
For the next hour, Meredith directed her actors through rehearsal, although really only Jeff needed help. She and Nina had heard this fairy tale for years.
And what a story it was! Meredith had added some personal bits and pieces (she imagined this was a playwright’s prerogative, and besides, her mother only told the stories at night, she didn’t write them), like a magical wishing well and an enchanted mirror. But even without the extras, it was as good as any movie, this story of a reckless peasant girl who fell in love with the handsome prince and ran off to be with him, and of the evil black knight who wanted to crush them.
When the rehearsal was over and everyone went their separate ways, Meredith kept working. She made a sign that read: One Night Only: A Grand Play for the Holiday and listed their three names. She touched up the painted backdrop (it was impossible to fix entirely; Nina always colored outside of the lines), and then positioned it in the living room. When the set was ready, she added sequins to the tulle ballet skirt-turned princess gown that she would wear at the end. It was nearly two in the morning by the time she went to bed. And even then, she was so excited that it took a long time for her to fall asleep.
The next day seemed to pass slowly, but finally, at six o’clock, the guests began to arrive. It was not a big crowd, just the usual people: men and women who worked for the orchard and their families, a few neighbors, and Dad’s only living relative, his sister, Dora.
Meredith sat at the top of the stairs, staring down at the entryway below. She couldn’t help tapping her foot on the step, wondering when she could make her move.
Just as she was about to stand up, she heard a clanging, rattling sound.
Oh, no. She shot to her feet and rushed down the stairs, but it was too late.
Nina was in the kitchen, banging a pot with a metal spoon and yelling out, “Show time!” No one knew how to steal the limelight like Nina.
There was a smattering of laughter as the guests made their way from the kitchen to the living room, where the painting of the castle hung from an aluminum movie screen set up beside the massive fireplace. To the right was a large Christmas tree, decorated with drugstore lights and the ornaments Nina and Meredith had made over the years. In front of the painting was their “stage;” a small wooden bridge that rested on the hardwood floor and a streetlamp made from cardboard, with a flashlight duct taped to the top.
Meredith dimmed the lights and then ducked behind the painted backdrop. Nina and Jeff were already there, in their costumes.
There was no real privacy back here. If she leaned a little sideways, she could see many of the guests, sitting in various chairs in the living room, and they could see her, but still it felt separate. Meredith went out to the fake streetlamp and turned it on. It created a pale spotlight on their stage. Then she slipped behind the backdrop again and began the narration she’d composed so painstakingly: “Her name is Vera, and she is a poor peasant girl, a nobody. She lives in a magical realm called the Snow Kingdom, but her beloved world is dying.”
She heard a sound, like a sharp intake of breath. Leaning sideways, she peered around the screen, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone was smiling, nodding; the ice in their glasses rattled as they drank. Meredith cleared her throat and went on: “An evil has come to this land; it rolls across the cobblestone streets in black carriages sent by a dark, evil knight who wants to destroy it all.”
The audience clapped enthusiastically. Someone whistled.
Meredith walked on stage, taking care not to trip over her long, layered skirts. She looked out over the gathering of guests and saw her mother in the back of the room, alone somehow even in the crowd, her beautiful face blurred by cigarette smoke. For once, she was looking directly at Meredith. Finally.
“It is so cold, this winter,” Meredith said loudly, pacing in front of the faux castle. She clapped her mittened hands together.
At the sound, Nina made her entrance. Dressed in a ratty nightgown with a kerchief covering her hair, she wrung her hands together and looked up at Meredith. “Do you think it is the Black Knight?” she practically yelled, drawing a laugh from the crowd and immediately grinning at them. “Is his bad magic making it so cold?”
“No. No. I am chilled at the loss of our father. I am so worried. When will he return?” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and sighed dramatically. “The carriages are everywhere these days. The Black Knight is gaining more and more power…people are turning to smoke before our eyes…”
“Look,” Nina said, pointing toward a picture taped to the fireplace. “It is a white carriage, with gold. The Prince…” She managed to sound nearly reverent.
Jeff came out from behind the fake trees. In his blue sport coat and jeans, with a cheap gold crown on his wheat blond hair, he looked so handsome that for a moment Meredith could hardly breathe. She knew he was embarrassed and uncomfortable --- the red in his cheeks made that obvious --- but still he was here, proving what a good friend he was. And he was smiling at her as if she really were a princess.
Meredith crossed in front of Nina and went to Jeff. He held out a pair of silk roses. “I have two roses for you,” he said, his voice cracking.
Meredith touched his hand, but before she could say her line there was a crash and a sound like a cry.
Meredith turned, saw her mother standing in the center of the crowd, motionless, her face pale, her blue eyes blazing. Blood dripped from her hand. She’d broken her cocktail glass, and even from here, Meredith could see a shard sticking out of her mother’s palm.
“Enough,” her mother said sharply. “This is hardly entertainment for a party.”
The guests seemed to freeze; some stood up, other remained stubbornly seated. The room went quiet.
Dad made his way to Mom. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. Or he tried to; she wouldn’t bend, not even for him.
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said, although she didn’t know what she’d done wrong.
“I never should have told you those ridiculous fairy tales,” Mom said, her Russian accent sharp with anger. “I forgot how romantic and empty headed girls can be.”
Meredith was so humiliated she couldn’t move.
She saw her father guide her mother into the kitchen, where he probably took her straight to the sink and began cleaning up her hand. The guests left as if this were the Titanic, rushing for lifeboats stationed just beyond the front door.
Only Jeff looked at her, and she could see how embarrassed he was for her. The pity in his eyes made her feel sick to her stomach. He started toward her, still holding the two roses. “Meredith --- “
She pushed past him and ran out of the room. At the end of the hall, she skidded to a stop and stood there, breathing hard, her eyes burning with tears. As if from faraway, she could hear her dad’s voice as he tried to soothe his angry wife. A minute later a door clicked shut, and she knew that Jeff had gone home.
“What did you do?” Nina asked quietly, coming up beside her.
“Who knows?” Meredith said, wiping her eyes. “She’s such a bitch.”
“That’s a bad word.”
Meredith heard the quiver in Nina’s voice and knew how hard her sister was trying not to cry. She reached down and held her hand.
“What do we do? Should we say we’re sorry?”
Meredith couldn’t help thinking about the last time she’d made her mother mad and told her she was sorry. She tightened her hold on Nina’s hand. “She won’t care. Trust me.”
“So what do we do?”
Meredith straightened, tried to feel as mature as she had this morning, but her confidence was gone. She knew what would happen: Dad would calm Mom down and then he’d come up to their room and make them laugh and hold them in his big, strong arms and tell them that Mom really loved them. By the time he was done with the jokes and the stories, Meredith would want to believe it. Again. “I know what I’m going to do,” she said, staring through the entryway to the kitchen, where she could see Mom’s side --- just her slim, black velvet dress and her pale arm, and her white, white hair. “I’m never going to listen to one of her stupid fairy tales again.”
Excerpted from WINTER GARDEN © Copyright 2011 by Kristin Hannah. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.