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Could Not Help Loving You

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Natasha goes to church more often these days. Its quiet respite sooths something deep inside her and she submits to the power emanating from the high ceilings and gilded iconostas. In the spring, the light that filters through the stained glass windows mingles with the candlelight to soften the shadows and make the cold stone floor seem more forgiving.

In the spring, she finds Princess Mary lighting candles in a far corner and for the first time, does not shrink away from the meeting.

They light candles and pray silently, two figures in an empty church – still, until they cross themselves, silent, until Princess Mary says, “it’s better this way. It’s for the better that you did not marry into our family.”

The Bolkonsky women die young, is what Natasha has been told. It’s hard to believe when she looks at Mary in the soft, spring sunlight filtered through tinted glass. She looks almost like an angel with those luminescent eyes of hers—and Angels don’t die at all.

Natasha drops her eyes and fidgets with the laces on her sleeves. “Do you think God listens to fallen women?” she asks. She already knows that people do not – even those who offer kindness forgive more than listen. But God is not a person—and Mary would know about God.

“God listens to everyone,” Mary says, a lilting awe in her voice. Natasha feels Mary’s eyes on her and she flushes with embarrassment. “Oh, but Natasha,” she continues in a half-whisper, “I would listen to you too, if you’d like.”

*~*

Summer is warm, despite the war. Mary stays in Moscow because it is safer than Bald Hills – they won’t let Moscow fall, everyone says. Natasha doesn’t read the papers—deep inside, she shrinks from the horrors of the war. Mary reads them sometimes and prays. After, she goes to see Natasha and listen to her sing.

Natasha tells her of Otradnoye and the hunts they have there. She has a brother at the front too. “When he comes back, we will hunt again,” Natasha says wistfully. Andrei never had a taste for hunting. Mary doesn’t say it though – she tries to not talk about Andrei with Natasha; it seems kinder not to mention her brother at all.

Sometimes, Natasha will reach across the length of the sofa and take her hand. One day, she stops mid-way through a sentence as she does so and looks down. Their fingers are tightly intertwined in a pool of sunlight coming through a gap in the drawing room windows. Natasha stares at their hands and a slow smile spreads over her face. She looks up at Mary and says, “You are so lovely.”

Mary flushes, both with pleasure and embarrassment. “Oh,” is all she manages as she looks away. In moments like these, she tries to not think about Andrei either. It feels a little too much like betrayal to be in love with the woman who broke her brother’s heart.

*~*

In the fall, the leaves change color into deep reds and sunny yellows. They cover the ground in a festive carpet which feel incongruous with everyone’s mood. After Borodino, everyone had to go into evacuation. Moscow fell and burned. Natasha keeps waiting for the leaves to turn brown.

Most days, Mary joins her after breakfast on walks and in the small garden of the house where they are staying. She wears mourning for her recently deceased father. Natasha never says it, but she thinks Mary is happier without him—and wishes Mary wouldn’t feel so guilty for being happy.

The first day Natasha finds a blackened leaf among a pile of its vibrant and colorful comrades, she picks it up and holds it up to the light. “The world is starting to die,” she says mournfully. “It seems almost right with how things are going. Isn’t that sad?”

“The cycle of life,” Mary says. “But…all is not gone just yet. Look around. The world is still fighting the winter.”

Natasha spins around, kicking up a storm of fallen leaves. They swirl around her ankles and knees. The wind whips through nearby trees – a cold, wintery gust – and more leaves fall. A maple leaf gets tangled in Natasha’s hair and she laughs despite herself. Mary comes to stand beside her. She reaches up and untangles the leaf from her hair. It’s bright yellow with orange spots. Natasha stares at it in awe.

“You attract the brightest things,” Mary says.

“You are the brightest thing,” Natasha counters, her expression mesmerized and full of awe. It seems a strange thing to say to a plain girl in a black dress and bonnet who looks more a crow than a sun bunny, but Natasha is radiant when she says it, as if she has never said a truer thing.

Mary flushes, but this time, she does not lower her eyes.

Natasha kisses her, soft and shy but somehow still sparking with life and energy. The feeling is heady and a little frightening. “Is it wrong of me?” she asks quietly. She thinks, jarringly, of Anatole. That had felt sweet too; it had also been wrong.

“No. Oh… I don’t know… ” Mary is also smiling shyly.

They kiss again without resolving the question.

*~*

The winter comes early – windy and frosty, full of snow. It blankets the ground and the roofs of houses. The rare sunny day is extraordinarily bright, glittering with icy splendor. At night, a lit fireplace, hot tea and a comfortable sofa is all that is required for comfort and intimacy.

The saying is that the world dies in winter, a period of desolation until its rebirth in the spring. But not all things die – the pine trees never shed their needles, bears slumber peacefully, carried through the cold months by the layer of fat they have accumulated, foxes and wolves scavenger the forest for what comfort they can find in the snow. A season of hardship, perhaps, but not death.

Natasha thinks about this as she sits curled up beside Mary on a sofa in front of the fireplace, listening to the snowstorm howling outside. They have both lost so much over the past few months, the war taking a toll on them and most people they know. But they still have each other.

Natasha puts her head on Mary’s shoulder and Mary folds an arm around Natasha’s waist, kissing her temple and humming a folklore-ish song her mother used to sing when Mary was very young.

The war will end, their grief will pass, but until then, they have each other to get them through the winter.