Stalingrad, Russia, November 22nd, 1984
“Hush, pretty Natashka. I know the world around you seems so big and scary, but one day, myshka, you will overtake it. Mountain tops will bend to kiss you, zvezda moya.”
The red haired baby squirmed in her mother’s arms, feeling assaulted by a world that didn’t seem to offer the protection of the belly that had up until now been cocooning her. Her little body trembled as she wailed, the frigid late November air seeping into the little house on the outskirts of Volgograd.
Papa didn’t exist. He had left when mama fell pregnant, but that was okay. Little Natalia would grow up loved by her mother. The woman promised herself that she would find a way eventually, for her baby to grow up happy and wanting for nothing. In the meantime, she could afford little more than groceries every week. That changed when Babka found out about her little fire haired granddaughter.
Daily scolding was a small price to pay for having the opportunity to feed her child.
“Really, I can’t believe you! I never gave you reason to think I would put you on the streets because of some scoundrel not keeping his prick to himself!
Little Natalia was four months old now, and having just discovered laughter but a week ago, sat giggling wildly on her grandmother’s lap at the affronted tone of her mama’s voice.
“I thought you were gone forever. Don’t do that to me again. I will keep you both here for as long as you need. Papa left us with good money when he passed. He wouldn’t want to spend it on a fatherless little girl, which is exactly why we’ll do just that,” her mischievous grin lightened the air in the room as she blew a raspberry into the laughing baby’s cheek.
Mama smiled to hold her tears at bay.
Babushka was Natalia’s favorite person. She had plenty of love for her mother, yes, but grandma was who she spent her days with while mama was working. Babushka fed her pastries when mama wasn’t home, and let her slap her little hands in the dirt outside in the summertime.
When Natalia’s first birthday came, it snowed for the first time that she could see it and be mesmerized. Babushka bundled her up and sat with her on the front steps and let her stare up at the sky and squeal, her mitten covered hands reaching into the air to try to grab.
“Yes, myshka, I see! Snow!” she exclaimed, reaching out a finger. Natalia watched in insurmountable glee as a big snowflake landed on grandma’s finger. When it melted, surprise crossed her features a moment before she began to cry.
Mama arrived home to see grandma laughing at the little girl and she placed her hands on her hips.
“Really, mamochka, laughing at the baby on her birthday?”
“I can laugh at her, I made the cake,” she chortled as Natalia hiccoughed in her lap.
She reached for mama when she came up the walk and the woman picked her little girl up.
“What has upset you so, lisichka?” she cooed, letting Natalia grab hold of her finger as she pointed to the sky and let out a fierce little yell, “The snow?”
She pouted, head falling into her mother’s shoulder as she cried. Grandma was still laughing as she followed them up the steps and into the house.
When it snowed on her birthday the next year, Natalia didn’t cry, rather wobbled onto the front stoop with a squeal, red pigtails bouncing as she laughed and pointed, “Babka! Come!”
The year had passed quickly as she began growing into a giggly toddler. She was energetic and still happy to spend the days with her grandma while mama worked, as long as she still got pastries for lunch. She was becoming harder to please as she neared two years old, but her little family didn’t hold it against her. Mama didn’t coddle her much, not like grandma did. Natalia was beginning to learn who would let her get away with what, and how to push the limits of their patience. Mama took her own mother’s word for it when she said it was only natural, that it was only fair for the way she had treated her parents as a toddler.
Her “terrible twos” proved to be relatively mild in comparison to what grandma accused her own daughter of. Most of what Natalia was interested in in the several months leading up to her third birthday was finding good sticks and seeing how far down the walk she could throw them.
“Natalia, it’s not nice to throw sticks.”
The girl stomped her foot, “Mm! Yes!”
“No, lisichka, it isn’t. Please don’t do it.”
She squealed in displeasure and jumped, her little fists balling, “Babka! Mama mean!”
Her grandmother, who sat on the front stoop with a book, hadn’t paid mind to the interaction. Something she was used to. Her daughter and granddaughter were too similar to not disagree on almost everything. Perhaps it didn’t help that Natalia was only two.
“Come here, Natashka. Cookie?”
The fire haired toddler beamed and abandoned her sticks while her mother watched on with a roll of her eyes, but a smile at her lips.
“You’ll spoil her into bad behavior.”
“Bah! Life is too short.”
On Natalia’s third birthday, the snow had started coming down thick the day before. When she woke up, they all three bundled up and made of family of snow angels in the tiny grass yard out front. Natalia’s was lumpy and kicked around by the time she got herself up (refusing any help, naturally), but she didn’t seem fazed, only happy to giggle and draw a lopsided pair of eyes and a smile in the deformed head of her angel.
Natalia started to become a very quiet and intelligent toddler. She preferred to observe people rather than interact with them, and her mother started noticing a funny little quirk in her daughter mimicking things she saw other people do. It was fascinating. She wished she knew what was happening in the little girl’s brain to make her so captivated.
On a walk with grandma one day over the summer, she saw a ballerina through a studio window.
“Babka, wait!” she gasped, staring mesmerized through the window as she clutched her hand, “What she doing?”
“She’s a ballerina, lisichka. She’s dancing,” her grandmother smiled and ruffled the loose little curls of her hair.
Natalia didn’t allow them to leave until the woman was finished dancing, upon which she noticed her audience and waved warmly at the little girl. The three year old squeaked and giggled, hiding her face in grandma’s leg.
That night when mama came home from work, Natalia was dancing in the little living room.
“I’m ballina, mama!” she exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.
Her captivation lasted longer than either her mother or grandmother assumed it would. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she requested, “Ballina in snow!”
On her fourth birthday, no snow came.
Instead, a man.
The man sat down and spoke with her mother and her grandmother. She was told to stay in her room. She was just too curious though. She stood at her cracked door and listened.
“I promised my daughter to them, Katerina. They would have murdered me if I hadn’t.”
“They’ll murder you anyhow, you righteous bastard! You aren’t taking my daughter!”
The slam of a fist on a table.
“I own as much of that girl as you do!”
“I don’t own her! I love her!”
“She will grow up to help the Soviet Union rise to its fullest potential! You should be honored this opportunity has fallen into our laps!”
The scratch of a chair pushing back on the floor.
Her grandmother’s voice.
“Leave. Now. Before I make you leave. If you think we would ever give that little girl away, you’re living in another world.”
The smack of lips. A sigh.
“I wished you would have made this easy. I never wanted to do this.”
Rushed, panicked protests. A click. A deafening bang. A scream. Another click. Another bang.
Her tears came immediately and her little hands covered her ears as she squatted into a ball, frightened beyond comprehension as she cried, frame trembling.
The silence that followed made her ears ring. She waited for her mother or her grandmother to come for her but they didn’t. She heard the front door open and close, and slowly began to inch her way out, still crying as she went to the kitchen.
“Mamochka?” she hiccoughed, “Babka?”
She stood in the doorway and looked at them, still on the ground. Kneeling down beside her mother she shook her shoulder, “Mama.”
Mama didn’t move.
She tried grandma.
“Babka, wake up. It’s my birthday.”
She began to cry harder, her tiny body wracking with panicked sobs as she pleaded for them to wake, and still, they didn’t. She laid down in the small space between them, tightly curled up and shaking with her cries.
The front door opened and closed again ten minutes later. Footsteps stopped in the doorway to the kitchen and Natalia cried harder, scared and helpless between the lifeless bodies of her only people.
When rough hands lifted her, she screamed and kicked and cried.
“Shh, shh, shh, little one… It will all be better soon, lisichka. Come with papa and everything will be okay. You’ll be safe, Natalia,” the man rocked her, yet it didn’t quell her panic.
She continued to scream and kick until he lost his temper and took her from the house, loading her into the back of a white, government issued van that drove away as soon as he got into the front seat.
The van doors opened to a white, blinding winter sky.
Natalia was huddled in the back corner, still trembling, voice hoarse from crying through the hours long trip. She was scared in the dark of the van, clutching desperately to the scarf she’d pulled from her mother’s person as the man – Papa? – had hoisted her up. She was still only in her little velvet birthday dress, long sleeved but not nearly sufficient to keep someone so small warm enough. Her shivering intensified as the bright daylight blinded her. She whimpered, hiding her face in the scarf.
The back of the van dipped as the same man from before took hold of her again, carrying her despite the struggle she gave. She couldn’t see as the brightness evaded her. Natalia cried, and continued to cry until her eyes adjusted to the outdoors. Her sobbing slowed as soon as she caught sight of the building she was being carried towards.
Snow covered the structure, a beautiful old mansion, the likes of something Natalia had only seen in the fairy stories Babka read to her. It was a massive structure and the size of it stunned her into silence, eyes darting around in assessment. Her struggles became weaker as the shock began to set in. It was all too much and too quick for her to process.
Inside, the dark wood furnishings brought an elegance that didn’t seem to fit the institution within. Straight through from the foyer, framed by two grand pillars, was a studio transformed from what may have been a parlor in another life. Inside, a group of girls danced, and Natalia was mesmerized. Her tears were wet on her cheeks as she stared in wonderment.
A woman, tall, slender, and severe, stepped out of the studio when she saw them. Her lips drew up into a smile as she set her eyes upon the little girl.
The man bowed his head.
“Madame. My daughter. Natalia Alianovna Romanova.”