I SAW THE FIRE FIRST. It flickered in and out of sight between the leaves far ahead, somewhere beyond the forest. Fire could only mean one thing: people.
I rushed forward with a burst of new energy, though it took all my power to move. My feet dragged like anchors. Low spruce branches scratched at my hair and sleeves. I was exhausted and sore from running so long, but having finally found a sign of hope, I would not stop.
If I stopped I’d have to think about the painful, black hole yawning inside me. Or of the Bolshevik soldiers who must have noticed by now that I was missing. Or of the bodies I had left behind.
My jacket was stiff with bloodstains and riddled with jagged holes, gruesome souvenirs. I could hardly ask for help in such a state. I would terrify anyone who saw me.
I pawed at the buttons frantically until I could tear the jacket off and throw it away, leaving it a misshapen lump hidden in the brush. It was unrecognizable as the garment that Mama had chosen for me only two years ago.
“You’re so careless,” Mama tutted as she held the blue cloth up between us. “This is the third new suit you’ve needed this summer. Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
“Of course, Mama. Next time I fall off my bicycle, I will take care to land on my head so I don’t damage my dress.”
Mama wrinkled her nose at me, fighting a smile.
“Shvibzik.” She shook her head. “When will you grow up?”
“Only when I have to.”
She huffed and pressed the fabric against my chest, satisfied that it would flatter me, running her gentle hand over the cotton.
I left it in the dirt, as I had done with everything else I once cared about.
Then I emerged from the forest.
An overgrown field sprinkled with clovers spread out before me. It sloped upward to a little house; I could no longer see the fire, but its smoke rose dark and steady from the other side of the dwelling. As I stared, the sound of accordion music started up. It was a lively tune, as for a barynya, and soon the noise of clapping hands joined in.
I laughed, my hope spilling over into delirious relief, and plucked leaves and burrs from my hair as I ran up the hill. The sun had risen high. I moistened my cracked lips, trying to remember when I last had something to drink. I could already taste my next cup. I had been wandering these mountain outskirts of Ekaterinburg for so long that at times I had doubted I would ever find my way out. But I had persisted, because as Papa liked to say, you could always find a solution if you kept working at it.
The house was no more than a hut, small and ramshackle, made of dark wooden logs. Its shutters hung crookedly. As I passed I saw that the entire side of the house was dotted with bullet holes.
I looked away.
Everything on the far side of the house was brightness and joy.
The yard held a couple dozen people, peasants, dancing and laughing, showing no sign that they were in the middle of a war. Women in colorful dresses and scarves spun one another around the clearing as a few elderly men played the accordion or clapped along. Little half-naked children chased one another in play, darting around swinging legs and hiding behind spectators. There were only a few other houses in sight, all as impoverished as this one.
At the edge of the yard, a few people had gathered around a rickety-looking wagon to examine clay pots and bolts of cloth for sale.
The fire was small, set next to a little outbuilding a good distance from the celebration. A large, surprisingly young man was busy tossing heaps of filthy, bloodstained rags into it. The fire dimmed momentarily, the smoke thickening, before it perked up brighter and more energetic than before. A few chickens that had been pecking at the grass nearby flapped and scurried away.
“Fine clay pots! Woven cloths and sarafans in many patterns!”
The vendor with the wagon was a young woman around my age. She had a strong, booming voice. Our eyes met as she surveyed the field in search of more customers. Hers narrowed, dark and hostile, before moving on. I must have looked like a beggar to her. I stepped backward, my dread rising, and stumbled into someone.
“Get off me!” The villager shoved me away.
I tripped over my own feet and fell to the dirt. My hands skidded against the rough, dry grass, and my skin broke open, red blood blooming on my palms with a sharp sting.
“Kulak!” she hissed.
My face burned. I climbed to my feet. The music slowed for a moment; the dancers looked around in confusion before picking up again as they seemed to decide, as one, to ignore me. The few people nearest to me moved away, avoiding me like some plague carrier.
“Take some syrniki, child. Here, zaika.” An older woman, her shoulders hunched and gray hair tucked under a plain flowered scarf, was making her way through the crowd and handing out food. She bore a broad, flat, covered basket before her, and every so often lifted the lid to reveal the golden sweets.
My mouth watered, and I swallowed, grateful for the moisture. I drifted toward her. The last time I had eaten was—it could not have been more than a day or two earlier, but I did not quite remember. My mind shuddered away from memories of the Ipatiev house. All I knew was that I was starving.
“Excuse me, please,” I said.
The old woman scowled. She studied me, her eyes alighting on the stains and tears in my skirt, my bleeding hands, my filthy, uncovered hair.
“One kopeck,” she said.
“Please. I’m so hungry.” My voice cracked on the word. I hated begging, but the smell of the warm syrniki dough enticed me. “Just one, please. I have nothing.”
She looked at my blouse and skirt again.
“Looks like you used to have plenty. Now you know how it feels, eh, pomeschitsa?”
Now I knew how it felt? My entire family was gone, and she thought that because I once lived in a grand house and my skirt was made of finer cloth than hers, I deserved it? That they had deserved it?
Her cruelty landed like a blow. I was no one’s landlord. I touched my chest, trying to ease my anger, to keep from saying something I would regret. Hand over my heart, just like Mama used to do when she tried to soothe me.
My fingers slid over a little rounded bump underneath the thin silk of my blouse.
I shut my eyes. This icon had touched her skin, too. Here was a reminder that I was not entirely alone. Brother Grigori had blessed this necklace. Perhaps his protection had kept me alive.
And then I remembered—I had more than just this necklace. I had something else of value, too.
While fleeing through the forest, I had loosened my corset several times and came close to removing it entirely. But something held me back. And thank God it had. Hidden inside the lining of my corset were diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires—the last of my family’s wealth.
I was no beggar. I carried my family’s legacy with me. I was their legacy. And I would survive because they had not left me destitute or helpless. I had something to trade.
I looked after the syrniki woman once more, but despite my hunger, I could not waste the jewels on something so paltry. They would fetch thousands of rubles, enough to last me the rest of my life, once I made it to safety.
And I would make it to safety.
Copyright © 2021 by Carolyn Tara O’Neil