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 apple 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 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 bedsheet.
Meredith bit her lower lip, trying not to frown. The castle was too messy; not right at all. “Do we have to talk about this again, Nina?”
“But why can’t I be the peasant girl who marries the prince?”
“You know why. Jeff is playing the prince and he’s thirteen. You’d look silly next to him.”
Nina put her paintbrush in the empty soup can and sat back on her heels. With her short black hair, bright green eyes, and pale skin, she looked like a perfect little pixie. “Can I be the peasant girl next year?”
“You bet.” Meredith grinned. 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, 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. They’d been best friends since fourth grade, but lately it felt different to be around him. Exciting. 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 was still in his work clothes, a brown leisure suit with orange topstitching. Surprisingly, there was no smile lurking beneath his bushy black mustache or in his eyes. He held out the script. “This is the play you’re doing?”
Meredith rose from the chair. “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 one another over the expanse of the Picasso-style green castle and the costumes laid out across the bed. The truth they passed among themselves, in looks alone, was that Anya Whitson was a cold woman; any warmth she had was directed at her husband. 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 as with 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,” 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 about a reckless peasant girl who dared to fall in love with a prince. “It only takes ten minutes, Dad. I timed it. Everyone will love it.”
“Okay, then,” he said finally.
She felt a swell of pride and hope. 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, even those few that were spoken softly, in the dark, at story time.
For the next hour, Meredith directed her actors through the play, although really only Jeff needed help. She and Nina had heard this fairy tale for years.
Later, when the rehearsal was over and everyone had gone 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, “Showtime!” 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 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 in the room, turned on the flashlight, and then ducked behind the painted backdrop. Nina and Jeff were already there, in their costumes.
There was only a little privacy back here. If she leaned sideways, she could see several of the guests, and they could see her, but still it felt separate. When the room quieted, Meredith took a deep breath 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. 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.”
Meredith made her entrance, taking care not to trip over her long, layered skirts as she took the stage. She looked out over the guests and saw her mother in the back of the room, alone somehow even in this crowd, her beautiful face blurred by cigarette smoke. For once, she was looking directly at Meredith.
“Come, sister,” Meredith said loudly, moving toward the streetlamp. “We shall not let this cold stop us.”
Nina stepped out from behind the curtain. 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 yelled, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “Is his bad magic making it so cold?”
“No. No. I am chilled at the loss of our father. When will he return?” Meredith pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and sighed dramatically. “The carriages are everywhere these days. The Black Knight is gaining power . . . people are turning to smoke before our eyes. . . .”
“Look,” Nina said, pointing toward the painted castle. “It is the prince. . . .” She managed to sound reverent.
Jeff moved into place on their little stage. 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 couldn’t remember her lines. 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.
He held out a pair of silk roses. “I have two roses for you,” he said to Meredith, his voice cracking.
She touched his hand, but before she could say her line there was a loud crash.
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 didn’t know what to do; some stood up, others remained 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 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 and they were rushing for lifeboats stationed just beyond the front door.
Only Jeff looked at Meredith, and she could see how embarrassed he was for her. 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, in a shadowy corner, she skidded to a stop and stood there, breathing hard, her eyes burning with tears. She could hear her dad’s voice coming from the kitchen; he was trying to soothe his angry wife. A minute later a door clicked shut, and she knew that Jeff had gone home.