Ivan shivered and huddled into his coat, mittened hands thrust in pockets, twisting his body from side to side. Maman had made him wear his boots and his warm coat and a muffler round his face and neck, but even though he was warm and sleepy on the outside he still felt cold and shivery on the inside.
“Most kids don’t hafta get up at dawn on their birthdays, y’know,” he remarked.
Maman didn’t answer, but her lips tightened into a thin line. Ivan suddenly worried he had been whining. Maman did not like whining. He had tried to use his big boy voice. Maybe he had been complaining. She didn’t like complaining, either. Vor don’t complain, she said. So instead he thought about the pastries at the bakery they would go to after they were done here. Should he get the berrycream filo or the honeynut sweetroll? Everything there was so delicious…
Maman finished adding her lock of hair to the offerings on the brazier and turned to him with her little pair of scissors.
“I can do it! I can do it myself!” insisted Ivan, reaching out his hands. Wordlessly she handed them over. Biting his lip and squinting up cross-eyed at the little bit of fringe over his forehead, he carefully clipped a small section. He beamed up at her as he added the short lengths of hair. Maman just sighed and gave him a pained look. Some of the hairs drifted away down to the street, but some of it did end up in the brazier.
Maman guided his hand on the taper as they lit the brazier. Ivan could have done that by himself too, but he liked it when Maman’s warm hand covered his. They watched the offerings burn.
Maman turned to him. “Do you know why we come here to make an offering on your birthday?” she asked.
“’Cause this is where my father died on the same day I was born,” Ivan answered by rote.
“Yes, that’s part of it.”
Ivan waited for her to say more but she was quiet again, staring at something he couldn’t see. He wondered what kind of cake they would have at his party. He never got to pick it, but it was always really good, ’cause bakeries who wanted to cater events for Gregor would give her samples to try, since she was in charge of organizing Gregor’s parties, ’cause he didn’t have a maman. Well, he did have Tante Cordelia, but she wasn’t very good at Emperor-parties.
Maman interrupted his cake-wondering. “We come here on your birthday not only to remember your father, but also to celebrate you.” She crouched down next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “You were the last gift Padma gave me. And you are the best thing in my life, ever. I never forget that, and I never forget that your father gave me you.”
Ivan didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. He watched with Maman as the little fire burned down, leaning against her, she still holding him tightly. His thoughts about his father went along with the smoke, curling up through the air.