She is four when they move into a house in the middle of the wilderness. It was once an old abandoned farm house, but the foundations are strong and the stone walls are finely made. It sits on some good land, relatively flat and hidden by a copse of young trees. Off to the side, there should be a gurgling brook under a long, narrow bridge that has seen better days. Now, the brook weaves a tiny trickling pathway through the icy winter grounds. In the Russian countryside, the winters are always fierce. The ground has been swallowed by snow. On the other side of the brook is a smaller building, possibly once used as a tiny store for grain during the winter. This estate is far from other houses and even farther from the city, and was not easy to locate.
It will be the only home Natalia will remember. She does not remember it for long.
This is her only memory of her father and mother together: the sounds of their discontent echoing down the hall, as she strikes out into the darkness alone, in this strange house that Mama says will become their home. She does not know what she is looking for. The voices from the front door bounce off the walls and she closes her eyes, feeling her way through to the drafty kitchen. She is a bat, unseeing and all-seeing at the same time. She imagines that her ears can pick up everything.
But how long will we have to be here, Mama protests. Natalia does not understand their conversation. Her parents always argue in English, and she is too little to care what they mean and try to make sense of it. She imagines other creatures of the night: she is a she-wolf, crouching on all fours. She is scrounging for food in the dark, slack-jawed and hungry. Her knees chafe soft against the bare floor, so different from the fine polished wood she once learnt to crawl on. She does not know the difference. She does not remember. She only knows that here is a strange place, one she is not used to, and she needs to change along with it.
Until this trouble is over. Someone knows about what I did. The letters -
Damn the letters to hell! I am not afraid of a few threats.
One-two, one-two. Natalia walks her fingers along the crevices in the stone. The only thing she can see is the pale flash of her tiny fingernails, scuttling across the concrete. She uses more fingers now. She is a spider in the dark. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four.
Tomorrow the power will come. I will be back by autumn.
Natalia needs to go to school.
Natalia is a smart girl. I will get books -
Solnyshko. Pozhaluysta. You cannot leave us here in this place.
You will be fine. Dmitry is one of the best.
He is a bad influence on her.
Their voices fade as she crawls into the dusty fireplace. It is empty, but still covered in a fine layer of soot. Natalia's searching fingers brush up against more cold stone. She moves her fingers up, down, left, right. Something catches on the tips, clinging and unpleasant. Cobweb. She grimaces and pulls away, but it pulls along with her. Spiders do not bother her, but something scampers across her fingers, squeezing its furry body into a split between two stones. Two liquid eyes, a whip-thin tail. Horror seizes her then: she is a rat, on her hands and knees, splayed on the dirty floor. Her skin crawls in disgust. She turns back into Natalia and runs.
Mama, mama. There are things in the dark. She stumbles back to safety. She tries to stop the tears from coming, but they are already here. She hates this place, she wants to go back. Surely it was warmer wherever they came from. She buries her face into her mother's thick traveling cloak and inhales. The rich bear pelt still smells of its death, but at least it is warm. The smell becomes a strange comfort.
Hush, Lisichka. Gentle Russian now. Give your Papa a kiss.
Natalia does not move. If she does not do it, he will not leave.
I will be back before you know it, Lisichka. His voice warps like it is underwater, because she is crying and everything feels like water. Natalia is sure she is drowning from it.
Natasha. When your Papa is back, he will give you presents fit for a princess.
I am not a princess. I want to be a soldier, like you. I want to go with you!
Before Natalia finishes her shouting, she is running up the wooden stairs. Mama will be angry with her for shouting, and she does not want Papa to see her cry.
She will later regret not looking at Papa for the last time.
The house is still dark by the time Mama comes up to her room, but it has been several hours by now and it will soon be morning. Papa would have been long gone. Natalia realises that she did not hear him go. The world outside is still and dark, and so is her room. She shivers and hugs her knees to her chest, thinking of rats coming down the chimney like blackened snowflakes.
It is dark, Mama. There are big rats crawling in the house.
We will have big candles with bright flames soon. We can play the shadow-game on the walls. You can be the rabbit, you will like that, no? Mama will be the cat. A warm hand smooths the hair on Natalia's head, flattening it against her cheek. The words blow past Natalia, insignificant for the first time in her life.
Is Papa going to fight in a war again? She tries to be brave when she asks this. She is old enough for truths of the world. She knows that sometimes, people go to war. After that, the house will be filled with flowers and there will be a pretty stone with their name on it to put in the garden. She thinks she would like to get a stone of her own to keep. Papa Romanova. She would lay it by a pond or under a tree, with flowers all around.
No, Lisichka. He is no longer a soldier. He... is in a different war. A war of politics.
Then it is not so dangerous, not like a fighting war? Are there evil people still?
The world is full of evil people. His world most of all. Mama must know then that Natalia's face twists in dismay, that it is an answer Natalia does not want to hear. But Mama has always been stern but kind, and she never minces her words.
Natalia, you have nothing to fear. Not of the dark, or of evil people. Take comfort in these things, Natalia. Breathe it in like it is a part of you.
The shadows in the room shift because the wind outside blows strong. Her mother remains a dark shape looming over her. How can Natalia take comfort in this? She is only four. But she does not say anything, just nods tightly because she is brave like Papa.
With dark there is light, and with evil there is good. And it matters not what others are, but what you choose to be. It will not be easy, but if you ever need to choose, Natalia, you will remember your Mama's words. You always have a choice.
Natalia understands this. After all, she is already almost five. There is the day and there is the night. There is lying and there is truth. There is her father leaving, when he could have chosen to stay. In a few years' time, she will resent him for this, but now she does not know resentment. She only knows that if it had been up to her, she would have chosen differently.
Is Papa the good person? In his polly-tick world?
Her Mama pauses for a small second. For who really can know whose side is the better until the war is won and the victor tells the tale? This hesitance is misread by Natalia. She fears, for a moment, that the answer will be no.
Yes, Natalia. Yes, he is.
Good, Natalia says, smiling in the dark and patting Mama's hand comfortingly. Then he will be home soon.
Spring comes reluctantly that year. One afternoon it snows so heavy that Natalia almost cannot open the back door. She puts all her weight into it, panting, then the door gouges a path through the knee-high snow and she tumbles out into the thin sunlit air.
By the time she has scrambled over the low hedge near the brook, the first shock of cold has already hollowed out her lungs. It comes back out in tiny puffs. She shoves her hands in her pockets and wanders about in a circle, making clouds above her head. She is a fire-breathing dragon, huffing her discontent.
Natalia, stay away from the bridge!
Natalia giggles to herself and skips farther out of sight of the house. She knows the secrets of the bridge, and she knows that the bridge will never harm her. Still, she obeys. It is easy to obey her Mama. When she tires of running dizzying circles into the snow, she hops along to find Cabbage-man.
There is not much for him to do this winter. When they first moved in, the garden was already covered in snow, and the parts that were not had already withered away from the bitter frost. Now he is working hard by the front gate, shoveling snow off the pathway. His nose and ears are pinched-red. His pale hair seems dirty and dark under the flecks of snow, and it has grown out, along with his beard, ever since they moved out into the wilderness.
Hello, Cabbage-man. Are you a snow beast today?
He barely glances up at her, but his brows have already knitted together. He mutters a few curses and wipes a string of clear snot from his nose. Is it not cold enough indoors? Where is your coat?
I do not need it. She sticks her tongue out cheekily. I am a mountain lion!
Not if you do not roar.
Natalia roars, then throws herself into the snow and rolls about. Look, Cabbage-man. Now I am a snow leopard.
Get up, girl, before your Mama sees you. Now I have more work to do. He sighs heavily and his mouth is downturned, but his eyes have crinkled up in the corners. Natalia knows it means he is secretly pleased. She lounges and stretches wide like a wildcat.
When will the bluebells come? Is it tomorrow?
Does it look like they will come tomorrow? Glupaya devchonka. He grips the shovel with grizzled, pink hands and continues working.
Natalia grins. She likes it when Cabbage-man calls her names. It means that he likes her, even though he will never say it. She spends the afternoon pestering him about flowers and about the new garden they will plant by the short hedge behind the house. She learns that if she puts white flowers under her pillow, she will be lucky. She learns that the red poppies in the fields will help you remember. She learns that bluebells are also called Dead Men's bells and that she should never pick them.
Spring cannot come fast enough. Papa cannot come fast enough.
Cabbage-man? Can we play Papa Comes Home?
He clears his throat and spits a great glob of phlegm into the snow. Ask your Mama.
This means yes. Natalia leaps up and throws the snow off herself, shaking it off like a dog. She hops back to the house and up the stairs, calling out nonsense-words to Mama when she asks what is going on. I have to look pretty, Mama. Papa is coming home.
She clambers onto her Mama's chair to look at herself in the mirror. Her hair is in knots, matted and dull from her romp in the snow. It is no longer red. It is easily solved: Mama always has a tube of red lipstick for special occasions. This is the most special.
It does not look as nice on her hair as she thought it would. Her hair only gets darker and stickier, so she leaves it and puts the rest of the smears on her lips. She is careful not to touch anything else with her dirty hands.
After she is satisfied with her looks, she wipes her hands off onto her petticoat and runs back to her room, her footsteps loud and thumping in the house.
Natasha! Are you behaving yourself?
Yes, Mamachka, Natalia replies sweetly. She tucks her mini encyclopedia under her armpit, because this is what her Papa said he would help her read when he gets home. She had specifically requested for an English one, so she will be able to speak English well next time, just like him.
The back door opens. Natalia can recognise the whine of the hinges from her bed, and smiles to herself.
Lisichka, I am home. Cabbage-man is always careful not to call himself her Papa, because he did once in jest and Mama was upset.
Natalia, on the other hand, can do whatever she pleases. Papa! You have returned. She takes the stairs two at a time, thundering all the way down and drowning out the disapproving tsk of her Mama. Papa, do I look pretty? Do you recognise me?
Ey! Cabbage-man draws up short and lets out a string of curse words. What the hell happened to you?
Dmitry! Mama scolds, storming over. Her eyes are green flame and Natalia shrinks back, avoiding its heat. What in - Natalia, what did you do to your face? Look at your dress! Why is your hair wet?
I am playing Papa Comes Home with Cabbage-man, Natalia replies bluntly, not understanding why this is not a good thing.
Natalia! That is no way to address Dmitry Vasil'yevich. Apologise to him. And look at what you have done to yourself. What a mess! No, do not touch me with those hands. Go to the bathroom. Your Papa will hear of this.
Cabbage-man ambles back out to resume his work, shaking his head and muttering. Glupaya devchonka. A flicker of a smile flashes across his face before he closes the door behind him.
After a few false starts, the sky cracks up wide open one morning and spring comes in all at once, crowding forward in a rush of green. Natalia sheds her leopard skin. She is a squirrel, emerging from hibernation. She infuriates Cabbage-man when she decides, one afternoon, to dig all around the frozen grounds of the estate for nuts that she may have planted in her sleep.
When the first bluebells tilt their blue faces to the sky, Natalia has already forgotten her Papa's face.
It hits her all at once one day when she is preparing his war-gift: a smooth grey rock fished from the bottom of the river near the rotting bridge. She wades into the shallow part and chooses the biggest she can find. This one covers her entire left hand, and is shaped faintly like a heart. This is a good stone.
The carving process is simple. She uses another sharp stone to make white scratches, but misjudges the space needed. Eventually, the stone reads PAPA ROM before running out of room. She does not mind. He will know it is his.
She has left space below it to carve his likeness, such that others will recognise him. This is important so they will not put flowers on the wrong stone. She imagines it now: a pale heart-shaped stone will rest on a soft bed of moss in the backyard, crowned with a wreath of poppies. The poppies will tilt their soft red-petaled heads towards his face, stroking it gently with the breeze. Her hand stops moving. She knows she is no artist, but at this moment, her mind cannot conjure his face at all.
The harder she thinks about it, the more the details elude her. She seizes up in terror once again. The voices in the empty house, the silhouette of Papa in the doorway. Shrinking away so that he would not see her crying. Who is her Papa? Did he ever exist? The memory slips away like the last dregs of a bad dream, melting away in the light of day. She cannot remember anything but a shadow in the door, trying to reach out a comforting hand.
She crashes back into the house, eyes wide. She is a white hart, fleeing the huntsman of the woods. MAMA. MAMA.
Hush, Natasha! What is wrong with you? Mama has been peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Her fingers are damp and sweet from it. A pot of cabbage boils behind her, its smell warm and comforting.
Natalia hesitates. I only wanted to ask you something, she says, suddenly quieted by Mama's heavy glare. Mama's gaze softens, and the lines on her face smooth out. Emboldened, Natalia presses on. Can you tell me what Papa looks like? It is only... it is not easy to remember.
She is suddenly clouded by shame. What kind of daughter forgets her father's face? She regrets asking, and prepares to apologise and slink away.
I will tell you, Mama says, and Natalia looks up in surprise. But first, you must complete a task.
Mama sets her on a quest to collect every blue thing she can find, from anywhere she can find it. Do not destroy anything, Mama dictates, when Natalia asks for the rules of their game. And do not cross the bridge.
Natalia flies out of the house. She is a sharp-eyed raven, keen and cunning. She pecks around at the ground with hands pinched into twin beaks, but quickly realises that it yields nothing. She flutters over to the flowerbed and plucks a tiny petal of a bluebell, the bluest she can find, and puts it into her pocket.
The following few hours are miserable and fruitless: the sky is already beginning to darken when Natalia sits down in a huff, taking stock of what she has in her sweaty fist. A few threads of Cabbage-man's cloak, which may have been just a dirty black. A chip of ice from under a rock by the bank, though it does not look blue anymore now that it is in her hand. The bluebell petal has shrivelled up and lost its colour, lying torn in the web between her finger and thumb. She throws the little trinkets aside, frustrated, then runs back to her crawly-hole by the bridge to peer into the water. The water is very blue, blue as the sky. She dips into her reflection and cups the water in her hands. Instantly, the water runs away, trickling through her fingers and leaving a stinging wake of icy cold.
She tries again and again, but each time the water flows away, escapes easily through the gaps in her fingers. She feels the loss keenly each time, as though with every handful of water that eludes her, it washes away another detail of her father. How his hands looked when he turned the pages of her books. Drip, drip. The line between his eyes. Drip, drip. The way his laugh went quiet and airy when he was telling a secret. Drip, drip.
Natalia will not cry. She flicks the cold water off her hands distastefully and throws herself down onto the rocky shore. So what if she does not remember her Papa? He will be back soon enough.
Something out of the corner of her eye. She is a river-eel, sinuous and electric. She slices through the water and the cold gives her strength. She weaves through the black wood stakes below the bridge, pulls herself higher up on one of them. There it is: an old nest, half-wrecked by the fresh torrents of snowmelt running down the river. Within it, a curve of eggshell. She picks it up to inspect it closely. It is speckled as though with pepper, and gleams a soft dusty blue. Robin? Starling? She will have to ask Cabbage-man.
She has completed her task. She bounds back to the house, quick as a hare, but careful not to break the shell further. She cups it within both hands like a precious stone.
When she shows it to Mama, Natalia knows she has completed her task well. Mama smiles, sudden like a welcome breeze.
Perfect, Lisichka. Keep it well. That is the exact colour of your Papa's eyes. Now you will always remember.
She does not realise that summer has come until Mama points it out from her window. For the first time that year, she tells Natalia that it is a good idea to go outdoors. This day is a golden day. The sun pours over the dark, waxy vines of the house like thick honey. Cabbage-man is there, as always, propped on a spindly wooden ladder and clipping away at the thick bunches of foliage. He is grumbling to himself about how his knife skills have been reduced to cutting overgrown plants.
The tinkle of Natalia's laughter drifts up to him as she plays her nonsense animal-games at the foot of the ladder. Go away, Volchonok. Or I will cover you in leaves.
Anybody else would think that he is threatening her, but he is not. Natalia cannot think of anything smart to say back to him, so she falls back on the only rude name she has ever thought of. Cabbage-man! She sticks up her tongue, then throws some fallen leaves up at him and runs away.
The day is long and soon she is sweaty and bored. She has run circles around the stone house at least thirty times. Cabbage-man takes a break, too: he lights a cigarette and lounges back on the top rung of his ladder, blowing smoke into the wind. His hair ruffles gently, and the way the sunlight hits it makes it seem almost white. Up there on his perch, high up from where Natalia rests, he looks like a frowning, displeased angel. The smoke swirls about him like a halo, then drifts up and away.
A flash of red, winking down at Natalia from a cornerstone. She puts her hand up to shield her eyes. Ey, Cabbage-man! Do you see that? Surely it is a poppy.
He leans over to look, but the sun is in his eyes. Nonsense. Poppies grow on fields. He flicks away the butt of his cigarette and turns away. Snip, snip. More leaves fall.
Natalia is a squirrel, fleet-footed and sure. She is halfway up the wall before Cabbage-man realises it. When he does, it is too late. The stones are dry and stable, and the twisting vines provide extra footholds. Soon, Natalia is high enough to press her nose into the tiny bud. Up close, she sees that it is less red and more purple, but she wants to see what she wants to see.
Look, Cabbage-man! A poppy for my Papa. So he will remember me.
Natalia! Cabbage-man shouts. She turns, bewildered at his sudden fierceness and urgency, a hot retort ready on her lips. For an instant, she is reassured because Cabbage-man does not look angry. His face is smoothed over, slack in alarm, bone-white against the sky. Then she overbalances and the world seems to tilt over. Her hands shoot out to grab anything she can hold on to. Stones! Leaves!
Thorns. The shock of the pain makes her let go again and her feet slide off the mossy undercoat of the creepers. The wind rushes past her so sudden and sharp that she has no time to scream, and it stings her everywhere with its bite. She slams into something warm that smells of earth. Immediately, the rusty tang of blood fills her mouth. She has bitten her tongue at the impact of the fall. She does not feel it yet; she is too startled by the sudden change in events.
Cabbage-man groans, shifts, then groans again.
Natalia pushes herself up on her elbows and he hisses. She sucks at the salty tang between her teeth, her hands fluttering around his face hesitantly. Dmitry?
Get off me, glupaya devchonka. And go and get your mother.
Natalia later learns that Cabbage-man has a broken wrist and rib. She cowers in a corner of the kitchen, hiding from Mama's disapproval and watching with owl-wide eyes. Her own wounds are minor: thin scratches across her palms, red rakes along her arms.
Mama winds white bandages tight around his chest as he instructs her, too careful and too gentle. Cabbage-man slides in a curse here and there, though somehow always sounding respectful. Tighter, pull it tighter.
When it is over, she pours him a clear glass of vodka, shoots Natalia a cold glare, then leaves to launder their bloodstained clothing.
She is a mouse, timid and cautious. She stumbles over her words. Please forgive me, Dmitry Vasilye... Vasilyen...
He sighs and drinks the vodka like a dying man, then sighs again. He looks at her, hard but not unkindly. No more climbing.
No, she promises fervently.
Let me see your hands. His strong fingers touch Natalia's trembling ones. The blood has already scabbed over. Does it hurt, Natasha?
Natalia wants to wince and pull away, but his hurts are worse and she has no right. She holds his gaze. A little. Does yours hurt, Dmitry? She uses his name shyly, like she does not know if she should. It feels strange, almost disrespectful, like trying to call her Mama by her name.
Like a bitch. He huffs a laugh and ruffles her hair with his good hand. Do not tell your Mama I said that.
Natalia breaks into a tentative smile, the warmth of his forgiveness helping to ease her skittishness. Pain is good, she says sagely, trying to say it like Mama always says wise things. It means there is also the opposite. If there is pain, there is... there is...
Her nose scrunches up. What is the opposite of pain?
Cabbage-man grunts, closes his eyes and tells her to go away.
There is one day that Natalia remembers more than the other days. It is a hot day but it rains all afternoon, and the air inside the house becomes warm and still in the humidity. A gentle breeze blows through her open window in a fine golden mist. If Natalia tilts her head to one side and squints, she can see a faint rainbow. It strikes the ground not far from where she keeps a stash of objects saved up for Papa's return. In a dirt-packed crack where a stone used to be lies a mini Encyclopedia, half a starling eggshell, a random assortment of feathers, the remains of Mama's ruined lipstick, and Papa's personalised tombstone.
She remembers this day because she sees her mother crying at the foot of the stairs. She makes no sound, but her shoulders are shaking. In her hands is a crumpled-up piece of paper. Natalia does not go down the stairs. She is afraid that Mama may see her watching, and is filled with shame, as if she has seen someone without their clothes on. Watching people cry will always bother her more than nudity. She will realise this later.
Natalia sees Cabbage-man approach Mama like a white shadow. He brings the smell of the rain from outside the house: warm and sharp like the sap of fresh-clipped stems. White fingers rest, carefully, on Mama's closed fists. A question.
Mama stills, inhales, then straightens up. A tree planting its roots deep. January, then, she says steadily. Cabbage-man gives a stiff nod, and it seems his face turns slightly to the top of the staircase, where Natalia peeps through the gap in the steps. She shrinks away quickly, wondering if her eyes glint like lamps in the shadows. Maybe if she were a cat.
I will need to get supplies for the winter. He clomps back out the door.
She does not see her mother cry again.
Cabbage-man does not come back for two days. When he does, she hears him from at least a mile away: he has gotten his hands on an old pickup truck, with half its paint peeled off and the bonnet almost completely eaten by rust. It whines its way up the steep slope to their door. He spends the better part of the day putting his load away in the outhouse where he sleeps. Giant steel contraptions, slim leather-wrapped packages, sacks of potatoes and cabbage. Natalia groans inwardly. She is sick of potato and cabbage. Mama has mastered making everything from them. She thinks if she tried to bite her arm, it would probably taste of potato. Her sweat probably smells of cabbage soup. She is going to become a little Cabbage-girl soon. What will she tease Cabbage-man with then?
She sulks at the kitchen table, watching Cabbage-man heave and sweat, hoping he will drop the cabbage and that it will roll down the hill. He does not. Finally, when it is getting dark, he drives off again, rattling and clunking all down the road until he is a dot in the distance.
You did not wait for me. A scolding voice startles her awake. Cabbage-man is standing by her door. The high moon outside shows that it is already very late. It has taken a long time for Cabbage-man to abandon the truck and come back by foot. For a moment, Natalia tries to remember what she was waiting for.
I did, Natalia retorts indignantly, her voice heavy with sleep. She does not know what she is disagreeing to. A dull thunk by the foot of the bed wakes her up a little more, and she crawls forward to look at it. A small ceramic pot sits there forlornly. The plant within leans over the side limply, and the base is overgrown. She looks up in confusion.
Keep this for your Papa. For when he comes back.
He is out the room and down the stairs before Natalia spots the tiny furls of red petals, peeking at her between the weeds.
They only receive one letter in the fall. Cabbage-man brings it in late at night because he needs to pick it up all the way at the post office. He will not say how far the post office is. Mama does not cry, but they all sit facing each other at the dining table. Natalia stares sullenly at her bowl of okroshka. Mama and Cabbage-man stare at each other with lines between their eyes. Whatever they want to say cannot be said in front of Natalia, and her English has gotten better.
(Through her observations over the months, she can now accurately guess the meaning of the English words radiator, money and escape.)
Mama sees Natalia has not picked up her spoon and raps at the table sharply with the tips of her fingers.
I will try to hunt some meat, Cabbage-man announces. His plate has been scraped clean, but his mouth is twisted in an unhappy way. Or perhaps that is the way his mouth always is.
Be careful, is the only thing Mama says.
The days get shorter and the nights longer. It makes the waiting unbearable. Some days, more and more, Natalia forgets what she is waiting for. She feels like she has been waiting all her life. The poppies that she had received from Cabbage-man have been replanted all about the house, but they are beginning to wilt at the first signs of winter in the air. Natalia is not certain that they will survive the winter, if they will be around by the time her father gets back. She thinks, for the first time, that maybe he is not coming back.
She lays Papa's stone out in a thicket of the poppy-plant. She knows she will soon forget him: the stone is smooth and blank. Even the white scratches of his unfinished name have faded away. There is no face on this tombstone. This is the best she can do. She scribbles a goodbye letter to him with a stub of charcoal and a torn-off page from her mini encyclopedia. She does not remember what she writes.
If Cabbage-man notices that her Papa Comes Home games have stopped, he does not show it. Occasionally he will come back after a day of hunting with a small, skinny hare. Once, he comes in half-dragging a small doe on his shoulder. Their meals are rich for the next week. Though the smell of its slaughter and butchery lingers about the house, Natalia learns to love it. It means a full stomach. She is sad when the smell finally dissipates and they go back to various combinations of cabbage, potato and stringy hare meat. Mama cuts away some bits of the deer to salt and keep, with as much salt as she dares to spare.
One morning, Mama smiles at her more and makes a small batch of varenye from berries she has picked in the woods. Natalia stares at the small bowl of fruit preserve in front of her. The woods are not close by, a mile from the narrow bridge. She does not know if berries still grow this time of the year. Maybe this is why the bowl is small.
Fearing a trick, she mumbles a wary thank you before polishing it off in a few minutes. The sharpness of the berry stings her tongue, but her lips grow sticky and she is content. In this moment, among other moments, she does not realise she has forgotten her father completely.
Cabbage-man comes into the house, pats her head softly, and thrusts a heavy packet onto her lap. It is poorly-wrapped and unfurls slightly at rest. A thick flap of fur peeks out and she draws it quickly from the paper. She recognises the brown flecked with white: the fur of the doe from many weeks ago, speckled as though from the first snows of winter. Natalia draws it about her shoulders in wonder. It is a little too big for her, sagging past her waist to hang about her knees. The familiar smell is back: the heavy musk of freshly-bled game, deep in the stiff undercoat.
S dnyom varen'ya, Natasha. Happy birthday. Natalia did not realise it was her birthday until this moment. Her parents smile at her warmly, smile at the innocent surprise on her face. It is easy, now, to pretend that they are both hers, even though Cabbage-man's eyes are brown and not blue.
The taste of the tart jam from Mama lingers in her mouth. Natalia smiles and breathes in the smell of death.
It is one day to New Years' Eve, but Natalia does not know it. They are not keeping track, and day and night bleed together in indistinguishable moments of dark skies and howling winds. It hailed huge chunks of ice all over the day before, followed by a blizzard through the night. Natalia is frozen to her bones and stays in bed, wrapped in her treasured fur. The snow is almost completely obscuring her window. She is a bear, hibernating through the worst of the winter. She will sleep and when she wake up, the sun will be back and the flowers will be blooming.
There is a draught downstairs. Cabbage-man has been working all day to clear the snow from the doorway and windows. The chimney is closed to prevent the snow from coming all the way into the house, so they cannot light any fires. Their single radiator fizzled out two days ago under the strain of a cruel Russian winter.
Mama comes to Natalia's room and lies next to her in the bed. They share the fur and she drapes her own bearskin cloak over their knees as well. Natalia curls into the warmth and sighs. Do you think my flowers outside will survive, Mama?
Mama scoffs like she does when Natalia asks silly questions. You will find out soon enough, when Mitya has finished turning over all that snow.
Time flows honey-slow as each breathes in the warm oxygen of the other, lulled into silence by the steady chak-chak-chak of Cabbage-man chipping away at the snow packed against their walls.
It is late afternoon that Mama realises the sound has stopped. Natalia is half-asleep, and does not stir when Mama pulls away from the bed. The faint throb of her footsteps fades from the room as she goes back downstairs.
Mitya? How is the work going? How about a bit of vodka, hmm?
The muted sound of a heavy door opening and closing, then silence.
It may be minutes later or hours later when Natalia finally stops dozing. It is probably close to five o' clock. The sky outside is a dull bruise, still and cloudless. The twilight hour drenches Natalia's room in a pale blue haze and she sits up slowly. Time has stopped, the world is silent. Outside, even the wind holds its breath. By now, there should be the overbearing stench of Mama's dreadful cabbage soup bubbling over the stove, but Natalia does not hear a sound.
She rubs the sleep from her eyes, wondering if she is dreaming. She goes down to see if they are enclosed in an igloo world, her feet pattering on the cold stone. It feels as if the inside of the house is shrouded in a fog. She is a mountain-lion, stalking through the dusky mist of the Altay mountains. Cabbbage-man is standing at the foot of the stairs, holding something out to her.
She blinks and stares, and he stares back at her. It is not Dmitry Vasil'yevich. This man is dark-haired and broad. He stares at her, up and down, his arm stretching towards her. She swallows once and twice, because she sees his eyes. They are blue like the darkening sky outside the house, blue like the sliver of eggshell buried somewhere beneath her bedroom floor.
Papa? Her voice bleats out of her throat, alien to her ears. She can hardly believe her eyes, and her heart beats about in her chest like a caged sparrow.
Papa's outstretched arm trembles. He is not holding something out to her. He is pointing something at her. It is slick and oil-black, glinting dull in the half light. He makes a noise like a dying hare being gutted and bled out in the backyard, and does not move.
Papa, it is me, it is me! Wild happiness engulfs Natalia. She remembers nothing of what she has practised with Cabbage-man; not the trinkets in between the flagstones, not the look of her hair. Her feet carry her downwards and she tumbles into him, sighing happily. Her laughter rings like bells. Do you not recognise your Natalia?
Natalia buries her face into the fabric of his winter clothing. How could she think he was Cabbage-man at all? He is black on black on more black. She laughs again, giddily, leaning into his side. He smells of something familiar, like something she is dearly fond of. He smells of good memories and warm smiles, it is all over him in the insides of his wrists, the crooks of his elbows. His two arms circle her hesitantly, as if he has forgotten how hard she likes to be hugged. He drops to his knees, and he is bending down to her now, so close that she can press her nose into his cheek. She is surprised to find that it is wet, and throws her arms around his neck.
Oh, Papa, please do not cry. It is alright now. You came back. You are home. I have presents for you upstairs. Do you want to see? Presents there, and a present for you in the garden too. Do you have a present for me, Papa? I know you do, please Papa, I have been good. Ask Mama. My English is so good now. This deserves a present from you, surely.
Wordlessly, Papa presses a warm foil square into her palm. It looks battered, like it has survived many a war to get to her. Squealing in delight, she unwraps it and lets the chocolate melt on her tongue.
She will later realise that the smell on him is exactly the same as the starry-speckled doe's fur on her bedspread upstairs. At this moment, it is still wrapped up in the last remains of the warmth she shared with her mother.