The woman who answers is heavy and sad-looking, wearing a floral housecoat that has seen better days. Her gray hair is covered by a pale green kerchief. She is smoking a cigarette, and her fingers are discolored where it rests between them.
“Zoya,” the woman says. “And these are my grandchildren. Veronika and Olga. Which is which?”
“I am Vera,” she says, standing tall beneath her new grandmother’s scrutiny.
The woman nods. “There will be no problem with you, yes? We do not need the trouble you have had.”
“There will be no trouble,” Mama says quietly, and they are shown inside.
Vera stops dead. Olga bumps into her and giggles. But her laughter stops abruptly.
The apartment is a single room with a small wood-burning stove and a sink, a wooden table with four mismatched chairs, and a narrow bed pushed against the wall. A curtainless window stares out at the brick wall across the alley. In the corner, a half-open door reveals an empty closet. There is no bathroom; it must be a communal one for the building.
How can they all live here, crammed together like rats in a shoe box?
“Come,” her grandmother says, grinding out the butt of her cigarette in a saucer overflowing with ashes. “I will show you where to put your things.”
Hours later, on this first night in their new home, in the room that smells of boiled cabbage and too many people, Vera makes a bed of blankets on the floor and snuggles close to her sister.
“A man from work will bring our furniture over tomorrow,” Mama says tiredly. Olga begins to cry. They all know that furniture will not matter much.
Vera takes hold of her sister’s hand. Outside, a cart crashes into something, a man yells out a curse, and Vera can’t help thinking that they are the sounds of a dying dream.
After that, Vera is angry all of the time, and although she tries to hide her displeasure with life, she knows she fails to do so. She is sharp-tempered and quick to criticize. She and her mother and Olga sleep together in their narrow bed, crammed so close that they must turn in unison or not at all.
She works from dawn until dark, and when she gets back to the apartment it is more of the same. She cooks dinner with her mother and grandmother, then carries firewood to the stove for the night and washes the dishes. Working, working, working. Only on Fridays is it different.
“You should quit going there,” her mother says as they leave the apartment. It is five in the morning and dark as jet in the streets.
As they pass a café, a group of drunken young noblemen stumble out, laughing and hugging one another, and Vera feels an ache in her chest at the sight of them. They are so young, so free, and yet they are older than she, who trudges along beside her mother and sister going to work at dawn instead of drinking coffee and arguing politics and writing important words.
Her mother reaches out and takes Vera’s hand. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly.
Rarely do they touch on the truth of their lives or the loss. Vera squeezes her mother’s hand. She wants to say, I know, or It’s okay, but she is afraid she’ll cry, so she just nods.
“Well. Good-bye, then,” her mother finally says, turning toward her trolley stop.
“See you tonight.”
The three of them go their separate ways to work.
Alone, Vera walks the last few blocks to the Great Hall of Justice. She enters the long queue and waits her turn.
“Name,” says the goblin at the desk when it is her turn.
At her answer, he takes her papers and reads them. Abruptly, he gets up from his chair and leaves. Down the hall, in a great glassed chamber, she can see him talking to other goblins and then to a man in long black robes.
Finally, the goblin returns, takes his seat, and pushes the papers back to her. “There is no one of that name in our kingdom. You are mistaken. Next.”
“But you do have him, my lord. I have been coming here for more than a year. Please check again.”
“No one of that name is known here.”
“He’s not here,” the goblin says, sneering. “Gone. Get it? Now move on.” He cranes his head to look around her. “Next.”
Vera wants to sink to her knees and cry out, but it is not good to draw attention to oneself, so she wipes the tears from her eyes and straightens her shoulders and heads for work.
Her father is gone.
There one moment and disappeared the next. The truth is that he is dead, that they have killed him; whoever they are. The trolls in their shiny black carriages and the Black Knight, for whom they work. Questions cannot be asked, though, not even the ordinary questions of a grieving family. They cannot beg to bury him or visit his grave site or dress his body for burial. All of that would draw attention to them and to this execution that the Black Knight wants to deny. In the library, she goes about her work and says nothing about her father.
On her walk home—no trolleys for her today; she wants this journey to last—it seems as if winter is rising from the ground itself. Brittle black leaves fall from the trees and hang suspended in the chilly air. From a distance, there are so many of them it looks like a flock of crows flying too low. Beneath a leaden sky, buildings look drab and hunkered down. Even the mint-green castle looks forlorn in this weather.
By the time she gets home, the snow is accumulating on the cobblestoned street and on the bare tree limbs.
At her door, she pauses just long enough to catch her breath. In that instant, she imagines the conversation she will have and exhaustion presses down on her. Still, she straightens her spine and walks inside.
The room is crowded with furniture from their old life. Her grandmother’s bed is pushed up to the wall and stacked with quilts. Their own narrower bed abuts the closet. When they want to open the closet door, they must move the bed. A bureau that her mother has hand-painted and a pair of lamps line the wall beneath the window that won’t open. The only beautiful piece of furniture in the apartment—a gorgeous mahogany writing desk that was her father’s—is covered with jars of pickles and onions.
She finds her mother at the stove. Olga is at the table, peeling potatoes.
Her mother takes one look at her and moves the pot off the stove, then wipes her hands on the apron tied about her waist. Although her dress is baggy and old, and her hair is unkempt after a day at the food storehouse, her eyes are keen and the look in them is knowing. “It is Friday,” she says at last.
Olga rises from her chair. In a dress that is too tight, she looks like a flower sprouting from a seed shell. Vera can’t help thinking that her sister is a child at fifteen, and yet she remembers it as the age when she met Sasha. She had thought she was full-grown then. A woman standing on a bridge with the man she intended to love.
“Did you learn something?” Olga asks.
Vera can feel the color draining from her face.
“Come, Olga,” Mama says briskly. “Put on your coat and your valenki. We are going for a walk.”
“But my boots are too small for me,” Olga whines. “And it is snowing.”
“No argument,” her mother says, walking over to the big rounded wood and leather chest by their bed. “Your grandmother will be home soon from work.”
Vera stands back, saying nothing while her mother and sister dress for the cold. When everyone is ready, they go outside, into the blurry white world. The hush of the falling flakes mutes everything around them. Even the whine and clatter of the trolley sounds distant. In this whispered world, they seem isolated, separate. They are even more alone as they enter the Grand Park. By the time they arrive, streetlamps are lit throughout the square. There are no people out here on this cold early evening, only the gilded row of noble houses in the distance.
They come to the centerpiece of the park: the giant bronze statue of a winged horse. It rises up from the snow in defiance, dwarfing everyone who looks upon it.
“These are dangerous times,” Mama says when they are in front of the statue. “There are things . . . people that cannot be spoken of in the closeness of an apartment or the confines even of a friendship. We will speak of it . . .” She pauses, draws in a breath, and softens her voice. “Him . . . now and not again. Yes?”
Olga stamps her foot in the snow. “What is going on?”
Mama looks to Vera for the answer.
“I went to the Great Hall today, to ask about Papa,” she says, feeling tears sting her eyes. “He is gone.”
“What does that mean?” Olga says. “Gone? Do you think he escaped?”
It is Mama who has the strength to shake her head. “No, he has not escaped.” She glances around again and moves closer, so that the three of them are touching each other, huddled together in the shadow of the statue. “They have killed him.”
Olga makes a terrible sound like she is choking, and Vera and Mama hug her tightly. When they draw back, all are crying.
“You knew,” Vera says, not bothering to wipe her eyes, although her tears are freezing instantly, sticking her eyelashes together until she can hardly see.
“When they took him away?”
She nods again.
“You let me go every Friday,” Vera says. “If I had known—”
“You had to learn in your way,” her mother says. “And I hoped . . . of course . . .”
“I do not know what to do now,” Vera says. She feels disconnected from herself, from her own life.
“I have been waiting for you to ask me this,” Mama says. “You both have been waiting. Hoping. Now you know: this is our life. Our Petya will not come back. This is who we are now.”
“What does that mean?” asks Olga.
“Live,” Mama says quietly.
And Vera understands. It is time for her to quit marking time and start doing something with it.
“I do not know what to dream about,” Vera says. “It all seems so impossible.”
“Dreams are for men like your father. They are the reason we mourn him now, in private and secretly, as if we are criminals. He planted in your head all kinds of fantasies. Let that go. Quit being his children and become women of this kingdom. There are things to do out there; I promise you this.”
Their mother pulls them into a fierce hug and kisses both their cheeks. When they are close, she whispers, “He loved you two more than his words, more than his own breath. That will never die.”
“I miss him,” Olga says, starting to cry again.
“Yes,” Mama says in a throaty voice. “Forever. That’s how long we’ll have an empty place at the table.” She draws back at last. “But we will not speak of him again. Not ever. Not even to each other.”
“But . . . you cannot just stop your feelings,” Vera says.
“Perhaps,” her mother says, “ but you can refuse to express them, and that is what we will do.” She puts her hand into the big pocket of her wool coat and pulls out a cloissoné butterfly.
Vera has never seen anything so beautiful. This is not the kind of piece their family can own—it is something from the kings or the wizards at least.
“Petyr’s father made this,” her mother says, revealing a family history they knew nothing about. “It was to be for the little princess, but the king thought it shoddy work, so your grandfather was fired and learned to make bricks of clay instead of pieces of art. He gave it to your father on our wedding day. And now it is what we have to remember someone in our family who is lost to us. Sometimes, if I close my eyes when I hold it, I can hear our Petya’s laugh.”