The letter lies on her lap, the paper creased and crinkled in several places. It seems abnormally white and bright against the dark folds of her dress. She’s re-read it several times over the past month. It’s been that long since he’s written and she doesn’t know when a new letter would come, though they might expect one soon. She closes her eyes and folds up the letter, putting it back away into her secretaire.
She paces to the window and grips the windowsill with both hands, looking out at the street below and not seeing a thing other than his face. Somewhere far away the canons are booming and the troops are spilling blood. Somewhere out there her baby brother fights for their country, pretending he is a hero when all he really is is a child. The afternoon light catches on the vase stood on the windowsill and spreads over the walls and ceiling of the room. One of the sun bunnies alights on the flowers in the vase. They’re bright, like most summer flowers – radiant. She fingers one of them, feeling its velvety softness run over her skin. They smell amply of sweetness and that smell fills her nostrils until she can almost taste it. That smell makes her think of the countryside and the countryside of her childhood, before she was out in society.
She closes her eyes and breathes in, trying to recapture how those days had felt. The memories are clear, if sometimes allusive. But they’re all she has while she waits for a letter.
Since she was a child, Helene knew one thing very clearly: she was Anatole’s older sister. There were so many other labels she could put on herself: her parent’s daughter, Hippolyte’s younger sister, a young Princess, and so on in order of importance. But the one that stood out most was that she was Anatole’s older sister. Perhaps this had something to do with Hippolyte’s regular absence from her life. She was closer to him in age than to Anatole, but they barely had a friendship beyond the natural one of siblings.
Perhaps it was her lack of friends but Helene always found herself spending time with her younger brother. They caused mischief together, rode horseback around the estate, talked in the middle of the night about dreams for the future. She stood on the porch and watched Anatole on his first riding and fencing lessons. They shared tutors and competed against one another in who was the better dancer or whose French was best. Her childhood had been spent in a sunny blur at the estate, with a break for winters, which were bright white. Then they would sled together or make snow angels to their governess’ distress. Anatole was always a scardy-cat as a child and he would run into Helene’s room during storms and hide under her blankets. She would pretend to be angry with him for not letting her sleep but she never was.
When Theodore Dolokhov threatened to take Anatole’s attention away from her, posing as an older friend – in the eyes of a ten-year-old Helene he was nothing but a brother stealer – she threatened him, promising to have her way with him. In the end, he ended up having his way with her, but that’s irrelevant.
“Why do you like him so much?” Helene asked one night when Anatole had sneaked into her room and crawled under the blankets.
He chewed on his lip and looked over at her in the darkness. “Because he’s fun.”
That was such seven-year-old explanation, but she pressed on. “I’m fun.”
Anatole rolled his eyes. “Teddy’s a boy. He’s more fun.”
That hurt, and she turned away from him. “Well, if he’s so much more fun, maybe you should go back to your own room.”
Anatole turned over on his side and hugged her around the waist, sniffing and burring his face against her back. “You’re my sister. It’s different.’
“Who hit you?” Helene asked, looking at Anatole who sat on her bed sporting a bad bruise on his jaw.
Anatole repeated the name. The party downstairs was ongoing and the children were all still playing outside or in the playroom.
“And why did he hit you?”
Anatole shrugged. “We quarreled. I guess if I was older I would challenge him to a duel, right?” He looked up at her, searching for approval.
“Right,” she said distractedly, wringing her hands. She knew this boy. Voskresenski was her age, three years older than Anatole and a head taller. She wanted to strangle him. That was a terribly unlady-like thought, but Helene figured that since she was still wearing short skirts she didn’t need to act like one all the time, at least not in her own head. “We should tell Papa,” she concluded finally.
“Oh please don’t, he’ll just get me in trouble!” Anatole exclaimed, darting across the room to hug her around the waist and look up into her face with pleading, clear-grey eyes. “Pleeaaaseee?”
She sighed and shook her head. “Alright, I won’t say anything. But go to the kitchen and see if they can get you something cold for that bruise.” She waited until Anatole left, then went to find Voskresenski. He was playing with some of the other grammar school-aged boys. “I want to talk to you,” she demanded, grabbing his shoulder.
He shook her off but went aside from his friends anyways.
“You hit my brother.”
“Yes, we had a fight.”
“He’s three years younger than you! Don’t you find that humiliating to yourself? To fight with a child?”
Voskresenski crossed his arms and gave her a smug look. “What are you going to do? Hit me?”
Helene really wanted to. She really wanted to wipe that smirk off his face but she knew it would be terribly inappropriate for a girl to fight. “No,” she said levelly and began to circle the boy. “But I will tell my father and he will tell your father and I don’t think your father would be happy,” she said in her most pleasant voice, stopping behind him. She must have hit a nerve because Voskresenski relented and even lowered himself to an apology.
“You didn’t have to make him apologize you know,” Anatole told her later that night.
“Of course I did,” she said, taking pins out of her hair. “I would have made him do a lot more of it would have been any kind of proper. I’m your sister, remember?” She turned around to face him.
Anatole smiled up at her sheepishly. “Yes, I remember.”
The night before Anatole went to Paris for grammar school, they stayed up all night and talked. Twelve-year-old Anatole seemed both excited and terrified of going off on his own, even if there were relatives in Paris to keep an eye on him. They didn’t want to get caught, so Helene lit a single candle and they sat in the dim light, talking in quiet voices, imagining what Paris would be like. “I’m going to miss you,” Helene said suddenly.
Anatole looked up at her and nodded. “I’m going to miss you too. I like talking to you in the middle of the night. And playing tag, even though you don’t do that anymore.”
Helene shrugged. She hadn’t done that for a while now. Not since she began to wear long skirts. “I’ll write to you, alright? I’ll tell you everything that goes on here. If you make me a promise.”
“You’ll bring me lots of pretty hats and ribbons from Paris.”
Anatole giggled and fell back onto the sofa. “Alright, I will. I’ll write too.”
She looked at him and the childish grin on his face. Sometimes, Helene felt that Anatole had simply frozen his own growth somewhere around nine-ten years of age and refused to grow up any further. Somehow, that scared her. He would be all alone in Paris. Without her or Theodore to keep an eye out for him. Who would silence the gossiping girls or threaten the bullies that most pre-pubescent boys seemed to be before they developed a real brain? “Anatole?” she said tentatively, reaching out to grab his wrist. He must have caught the uncertainty in her tone because he met her eyes with askance. “Stay safe, alright? Don’t do…anything foolish.” Like you tend to, she added in her head.
Anatole blinked at her for several moments, then smiled brightly. “I won’t.”
The night Helene danced at her first big ball when she was almost seventeen, she fell in love. With Theodore, of all people. That brother-stealing, self-confident ass.
She wrote ten pages about it to Anatole, writing well into the early morning dawn. His letter back was twice that long.
By the time Anatole returned to Petersburg from Paris, everything changed. Not between them but in their personal lives. They were both adults. She – a bride in the making, he – a handsome young Prince who was about to join the army. Helene had so many obligations to meet, so many things to consider that she couldn’t list them all at once. Anatole had his obligations too but he took them no where near as seriously as she took hers.
But between them, nothing seemed to have changed. They still kept each others secrets and stayed up all night talking, even though the secrets were more serious than stolen candy and the conversations went far beyond how to make the most fun out of Aunt Marie’s visit during the next week. She helped arrange rendezvous for Anatole’s many affairs and he held her as she cried the night before her wedding.
It was such a brilliant match, Helene knew, and she was very lucky to get it. She had worked for it over the last couple of months. But she had no feelings for Pierre Bezukhov and what was worse, she did have feelings for another man who would never forgive her this betrayal.
“I was afraid you’d be angry with me too,” Helene told Anatole quietly, wiping away at tears on her face.
“Why would I be?” he asked, shaking his head in utter confusing. “You’re only making the logical choice.”
“You don’t make the logical choice. That’s why you’re not even close to married yet.”
“Well, you were always better and smarted than me. Why do you think I admire you so much?”
She shrugged. “Besides, Theodore is your best friend.”
Anatole reached out and pulled her into a hug. “Yes, he is and he will be damned unhappy to hear you got married while he’s out serving as a soldier. But I’m still on your side. I’m always on your side, just like you’re always on mine.”
“She set him up! That stupid, impudent bi—“
“Helene, what do you suggest we do? You knew the elopement was a bad idea.” Theodore looked at her like she was insane.
“I thought you would talk him out of it,” she sniped back, pouring herself another glass of wine.
“Oh yes, blame it all on me.”
She sighed and fell into an armchair, looking up at him desperately. “Just like I was hoping you’d kill my damn husband in that damned duel so he would stop being such a nuisance to me and my family.”
“Yes, well, your dear husband almost killed me. And now, he’s about to put your brother through hell knows what because the two of you don’t lock the door when you talk of confidential matters. If Pierre didn’t know that Anatole’s married—‘
“Well he does!” she snapped and got up so sharply the wine almost spilled over the rim of her glass. “Now Anatole is packing his bags and the person whose fault it really is, is that stupid Rostov girl who couldn’t gather her wits about herself. I need to pack.” The last she added as almost an afterthought, her voice dropping back to its velvety, calm tones.
“Where are you going?”
“Anatole is leaving Moscow and so am I. He needs me right now.”
Theodore crossed the room in three long strides and grabs her wrist. “You don’t have to.” He looked into her eyes, deeply, persuasively. She could feel herself beginning to drown.
“He’s my brother,” Helene said, pulling her hand away slowly, almost reluctantly but with utter determination. “So, yes, I have to.”
“Where he goes, you go?”
He smirked teasingly at her. “What do you call that? Sibling attachment?”
“It’s called love, you idiot.”
“I’ll write as much as I can,” Anatole promised, buttoning up his new uniform. The war had begun and he was leaving for the front. Helene wished ardently that he wouldn’t go, that he could get a safe aid-de-camp to headquarters position like Hippolyte, but Anatole didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to fight. “Don’t worry, Helene, everyone is going.”
“And how many will come back?” she asked, clutching at the skirts of her gown.
He finished with the buttons and spun around on his heel to look at her. “Nothing is going to happen to me.” He smiled, then laughed outright and crossed the room. “Nothing.” Anatole hugged her tightly and she wound her arms around his neck. “Look at me, sister…I’ll be fine. I and Teddy both. We’ll write to you.”
She nodded numbly, sliding one hand down his arm and onto the folds of voluminous fabric covering her abdomen. “I will have to go out of the country; it’s now too hard to hide it if I stay in St. Petersburg. Besides, Papa is afraid it many be too dangerous to stay with the war, but I…I’ll write to you so you know where I end up…” Helene unraveled a silky white scarf and tied it around Anatole’s neck, tucking it under his uniform jacket. “I know you won’t have much need of it in the summer days but at night it may keep you warm. And remind you of home.”
Anatole smiled and nodded. “You’re my favorite sister, you know that?”
She laughed and slapped his arm. “I’m your only sister, foolish boy. No go before I start crying and never let you leave.”
He kissed her forehead and nearly ran for the door. Helene watched from the balcony as he got into the carriage, saying goodbye to their parents, and drove off with a smile like he was headed to a ball and not a war camp.
For Helene, the summer of waiting had begun.
She knows as soon as she sees Theodore at the gate. She knows by the empty, exhausted look in his eyes and the black mourning band on his left arm and the way he refuses to meet her eyes. She knows because she hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and because she’d woken up with a heavy feeling of dread.
She runs to meet him halfway to the house. He grabs her hands and looks into her face. “Helene, I’m so sorry. I’m…I’m on leave briefly…I thought it’d be best if you heard it from me.”
She wants to scream that it isn’t true. That he’s lying. But she can’t utter a sound, so she merely stares up at him as he continues falteringly to tell her what her heart already knows.
“There was a battle at Borodino, you’ve probably heard by now. Helene, Anatole…Anatole is dead.” Theodore drops his eyes and Helene does not realize she’s started to scream until she finds herself pressed against his shoulder and her voice muffled by the fabric of his uniform.
“It’s not true! He promised! Teddy, he promised he’d come back!”
He pulls away and looks into her face. “Helene, I…I watched him die.” Theodore reaches into his jacket and pulls out a letter and the scarf she had put on Anatole before he left for the front. The virginal white of the scarf is stained crimson in some places. Her vision blurs as she takes the items gingerly into her own hands and looks at them, dumbfounded. “That’s the last letter home he wrote. He never got to send it and the scarf…He had it on him. I think he always wore it. Said it reminded him of home.”
She breaks the seal on the letter, not bothering to go inside first – she’s too numb for that – and reads.
I’m sorry this letter is so short but I have little time. Something’s coming, something big. A battle, I suppose. I’ve been so tired lately, but never afraid. You know, whenever I get afraid I think of you. You’ve always been there for me, always stood up for me when you could and comforted me when you couldn’t. You were always older and when we were children you could do that. But now I have a chance to protect you. I’m happy I have this chance. You may be my older sister but I’m still your brother. No matter what happens, I want you to know that you are the most important person in my life. I can’t wait to get home so that we can be an unbreakable duet again. I hope I can be there for when my nephew is born. I’m sorry, I know I must sound terribly non-coherent but my thoughts are everywhere these days. Don’t worry about me though. I’ll be alright. I promise. Take care of yourself, alright? And don’t worry about me too much.
She can’t breathe and everything around her begins to spin. He won’t come back, and they won’t share those laughs and intrigues and late night conversations anymore. Everything that seemed to be bright and innocent in her life has just died along with her brother, dissipated into oblivion.
As though from a distance, as though it is no longer happening to her, she feels a sharp pain in her abdomen, hears Theodore’s concerned shout, can feel herself falling… But none of it is matters…
The pain is overwhelming and she seems to exist in it for centuries. Through it, sometimes, float familiar faces and voices, but none of them are the one she wants to see and hear. She screams and pushes, pushes and screams. Finally, the pain dulls and in the background a child’s pitiful wailing makes itself clear. Through the mist that has covered her vision she makes out Theodore’s face. He’s holding her hand, saying something but she can’t understand.
“A boy?” she asks him. He nods to confirm. She takes in a deep breath and focuses her eyes on his so that he will understand. “Anatole,” she says breathlessly. She prays that he will understand. He needs to understand that she wants their son – her son – to carry her brother’s name. As a token, as a memory. He needs to understand how important this is to her.
“Anatole?” he asks, confused, probably thinking she is delirious. She reaches out and tries to touch his face. Instead, missing, her fingers brush against the black mourning ribbon on his arm, the white of her skin contrasting sharply with the dark fabric. He looks down at her hand and his eyes clear as understanding comes. “Anatole,” he confirms then repeats it, more confidently. “Anatole.”
She smiles weekly up at him. She loves him too, of course, but not enough to stay with him. Where Anatole goes, she goes. It had been that way since they were children, always causing their father grief together with their mischief. She closes her eyes and lets herself slip away…
The light is so bright she can barely see anything. The wind whips through her hair and the tall grass of the field around her. Toward her runs a light haired boy with grey eyes, her perfect copy if it wasn’t for the gender difference. She isn’t sure how old he is – anywhere between ten and twenty five. She can’t tell, nor can she tell her own age. It really doesn’t matter here.
Anatole laughs and that laughter echoes in her ears and all around her. “Helene! Sister, you made it!”
She laughs too as he nocks her down into the grass and she wraps her arms tightly around him. “Yes, I did.”