Nina was surprised by how much it hurt to remember that day. Dad had been at work, so Mom was in charge of getting her to the train. They had ridden with Mary Kay and her mom, both of whom talked excitedly all the way to the station. There, Nina remembered slinging her backpack over her shoulder and running forward in a herd of girls, giggling all the way, yelling, “Bye, Mom. I’ll wave from the train!”
Once on board, all the girls clustered at the windows to wave goodbye to their parents, who stood on the platform.
Nina’s gaze searched the crowd, but her mother wasn’t there, wasn’t standing with all the other parents.
She hadn’t even cared enough about Nina to wave good-bye.
From then on, Nina became like Meredith, a daddy’s girl who hardly spoke to her mother and expected nothing of her.
It was the only way she’d found to protect herself from pain.
Now that habit would have to be reconsidered. For years, she’d seen her mother without really looking at her, just as she and Meredith had heard the fairy tale without really listening. They had taken for granted that it was a lovely bit of fiction; they’d listened only to hear their mother’s voice.
But everything was different now.
To fulfill the promise she’d made to her father, Nina would have to do better: she’d have to really see and really listen to her mother. Every word.
Nina spent a restless night dreaming of imprisoned kings and black carriages drawn by dragons and girls who cut off their fingers for love.
Finally, she gave up trying to sleep and turned on the bedside lamp. Rubbing her eyes, she pulled out a pad of paper and a pen.
The fairy tale was changing.
Or maybe changing wasn’t the right word; they’d gotten to a place in the story that was new to Nina. She’d never heard this part of the peasant girl and the prince before. She was sure of it.
And it was so detailed. Not like a fairy tale at all. But what did it all mean?
She wrote: FONTANKA BRIDGE (real).
She tapped her pen against the pad and went through the story point by point.
CIGARETTES (since when did fairy-tale mothers smoke? And why hadn’t the mom smoked in the earlier segments?)
GALINA SOMETHING. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember the ballerina’s last name, but it had been Russian.
On that, Nina went down to her dad’s office and booted up the computer. The dial-up connection took forever to engage, but when the Internet came up, she ran searches on every word she could think of. She was so caught up in gathering information that when Meredith touched her shoulder, she actually jumped.
“You look like you haven’t slept,” Meredith said.
Nina pushed back from her chair and looked up. “It’s the fairy tale. Last night was all new, right? We’ve never heard that part before?”
“It was new,” Meredith said.
“Did you notice the changes? Vera’s mother is smoking cigarettes and wearing sagging stockings, and Vera is pregnant before she gets married. When did you ever hear shit like that in a fairy tale before? And listen to this: Galina Ulanova was a great Russian ballerina who danced at the Mariinsky Theatre in Leningrad until 1944, and after that, she was at the Bolshoi in Moscow. And check out this picture: the theater has a lyre and crown on its cupola.”
Meredith leaned closer. “That’s exactly how Mom described it.”
Nina hit a few keys and a picture of the Summer Garden came up. “Real. In St. Petersburg, which used to be Leningrad. And Petrograd before that. These Russians change the names of everything with every leader. Notice the marble statues and the lime trees? And here’s the Bronze Horseman; it’s a famous statue in the park. Not a winged horse, but a man on horseback.”
Meredith frowned. “I found a letter in Dad’s files. From a professor in Alaska. He was asking Mom about Leningrad.”
“Really?” Nina scooted closer to the computer, her fingers flying on the keyboard as she pulled up the biography on Galina Ulanova again. “She was most famous in Leningrad in the thirties. If we knew how old mom was, it would help. . . .” She typed in LENINGRAD 1930.
On screen, a list of links finally came up. One of them—GREAT TERROR—caught Nina’s attention and she clicked on it. “Listen to this,” she said when the Web site appeared. “The thirties were characterized by the Great Purge of the Communist Party, in which Stalin’s secret police arrested peasants, perceived political radicals, ethnic minorities, and artists. It was a time of widespread police surveillance, middle-of-the-night arrests, secretive ‘trials,’ years of imprisonment, and executions.”
“Black vans,” Meredith said, leaning over Nina’s shoulder to read the rest.
“The secret police came to get people in black vans.”
“The Black Knight is Stalin,” Nina said. “It’s a story within a story.”
She pushed back from the computer. She and Meredith looked at each other, and in that look, Nina felt the first true connection of their lives. “Some of it is real,” Nina said quietly, feeling a shiver move through her.
“And have you noticed that she hasn’t been crazy or confused lately?” Meredith said.
“Not since she started the fairy tale. Do you think Dad knew it would help her?”
“I don’t know,” Meredith said. “I don’t know what any of it means.”
“I don’t know, either, but we’re going to find out.”
At work, Meredith had trouble concentrating on the details of her job. She didn’t think anyone noticed, but while she was in meetings or listening to someone talk on the phone or reading some report, she found her attention wandering back to Mom and the fairy tale.
By the end of the day she was as obsessed as her sister. After work, she drove straight home to feed the dogs and then went to Belye Nochi and into her father’s office.
Kneeling on the thick carpet in front of the boxes, she found the one marked FILES, MISC 1970–1980, and opened the flaps.
This was going to be her starting place. Nina might be a whiz at investigative research, but Meredith knew where to look in the house. If there was one letter about Mom’s past, there might be others. Or maybe there were other documents, hidden in mislabeled files, or photographs thrown in with other memorabilia.
She found the file marked BepaΠeTpoBHa and pulled it out. Rereading the letter from Professor Adamovich, she walked over to the computer and sat down. The only link that came up directed her to the University of Alaska Web site.
She picked up the phone and called. It took several attempts, but finally she was routed to the Russian Studies Department and a woman with a heavy accent answered. “May I help you?”
“I hope so,” Meredith said. “I’m trying to find Professor Vasily Adamovich.”
“Oh, my,” the woman said, “there is a name I have not heard in a long time. Dr. Adamovich retired about twelve years ago. He has had several most worthy successors, however, and I would be most happy to connect you to someone else.”
“I really need Dr. Adamovich. I have some questions about one of his research studies.”
“Oh, well, I guess I cannot help you, then.”
“How can I get in touch with the professor directly?”
“I’m afraid I do not have an answer for you on that.”
“Thank you,” Meredith said, disappointed. She hung up the phone and went to the study window. From here, she could see the corner of the winter garden. On this warm evening, the bench was empty, but as Meredith stood there, Mom crossed the yard, draped in a big blanket, its plaid tail dragging in the grass behind her. In the garden, she touched each of the copper columns, then sat down and pulled her knitting out of her bag.
From this angle, Meredith could see the way Mom’s chin was tucked into her body, the way her shoulders were rounded. Whatever strength it took for her mother to stand so straight and tall around her children, she had none of it out there. It looked like she was talking to herself or to the flowers or . . . to Dad. Had she always sat out there alone, talking, or was that new; yet another by-product of a lost love?
“She out there again?” Nina asked, coming into the office. Her hair was damp and she was wearing a big terry-cloth robe and a pair of sheepskin slippers.
“Of course.” Meredith reached down for the letter and handed it to Nina. “I called the university. The professor is retired, and the woman I spoke to didn’t know much else.”
Nina read the letter. “So, we know for sure that Mom has a connection to Leningrad, and the fairy tale takes place there and at least some of it is probably real. So, I’m going to ask the obvious question: Is she Vera?”
There was the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. “If Mom is Vera, she got pregnant at seventeen. So she had a miscarriage or . . .”
“We have a sibling somewhere.”
Meredith stared out the window at the woman who was always so alone. Could she really have other children, and probably grandchildren, out there somewhere? Could she have walked away from them and never gone back?
No. Not even Anya Whitson was that heartless.
Meredith had had two late-term miscarriages in the years after her girls were born. She’d had a terrible time dealing with the losses. She’d seen a counselor for a short time and talked to Jeff until it was obvious that it wounded him too much to keep listening. In the end, she’d had no one—no friend or family member—in whom she could confide. The few times she had mentioned it, people immediately wanted her to “see someone,” not understanding that all she’d really wanted to do was remember her boys.
The one person in whom she’d never confided was her mother.
Certainly no woman who’d been through the loss of a child, either in the womb or in the world, could see another woman’s similar suffering and say nothing. “I don’t believe that,” she said finally. “And Vera obviously sees color.” As a kid, Meredith had looked up Mom’s birth defect in the encyclopedia. Achromatopsia, it was called, and one thing was certain: her mother had never seen a lavender sky. “Maybe Mom is Olga.”
“Or maybe Vera is Mom’s mom. It’s unlikely, but since we don’t know how old she is, anything is possible. That would be just like Mom, to tell us her story in a way we don’t ever get to know her. How will we know?”
“Keep her talking. I’m going to go through this house from stem to stern. If there’s anything to find, I’ll find it.”
“Thanks, Mere,” Nina said. “It feels good to be together on this.”
During dinner that night, Nina concentrated on acting normal. She drank her vodka and ate her meal and made her pretense at conversation, but all the while she was watching Mom closely, thinking, Who are you? It took an act of will not to voice the question out loud. As a journalist, she knew that timing was everything, and you never asked a question until you had a pretty damn good idea of the answer. She could tell that Meredith was fighting the same battle.
So when Mom stood up after the meal and said, “I am too tired for storytelling tonight,” Nina was almost relieved.