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Swan Lake and Slostivs

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In the Red Room, they are against love. Not love of all sorts. The love for the land that is mother to them all, the love for the Party that has fathered such a generation of new comrades, that is lauded. But to love a single man above all else, that is weak, that is stupid, that is part of the false consciousness of the Tsarist past and the capitalist West. It is also, for the girls being raised within the red walls, simply wasteful. To love a single man, when you could be so strong were you to love all and only your comrades.


Natalya Alianovna Romanova has heard this lecture five times in the three years since she turned fourteen. It has never been aimed at her, and she has never been present when it has been delivered, but she has it word-perfect in a variety of accents and intonations. Even in the Red Room, you cannot keep young girls from forming fast friendships. Conditions are in fact perfect for them, for they are all alike and so jealousies do not form, and they are all alone and so they yearn for camaraderie. And Natalya has more friends than the five who have had the temerity to fall in love with a guard or an instructor or, as Sasha had, with the famous ballerina who came to donate a generous six months of her time to ensure that they moved with deadly grace.


She knows the lecture and the pinched face of Comrade Instructor Petroff in the giving of it and the punishments and twice rigorous training that follows. But the air in the courtyard has the tang of impending snowfall, and her classes her the day are done, and she has an hour before dinner, and the Winter Soldier, the man who is the hungering wolf of Russia, who their instructors are wary of, who Comrade Instructor Petroff gives way to, the Winter Soldier has told her, not five minutes ago, she’s the fastest at putting a Kalashnikov together that he’s ever seen. And then, when she has thanked him for the instructions, he has smiled and said that she is faster than even him.


It is a lie, of course. She has seen how his hands move over the body of the rifle, a caressing tangle of flesh and metal over metal. But it is such a lovely lie that she thinks she should be able to spend ten minutes with it, since she has no classes and only stewed beef grey as old snow to look forward to at dinner. And then there is the matter of his smile, and how he looks not ten years older than her, and how brave he must be, and how trusted if he is let wander into the decadent West to hunt down enemies of the State. It might take longer than ten minutes before she can begin to behave as though it is of no importance. Well, she has ten minutes six times over, and that is time enough for most things. For her parents she had spent less than that time weeping.


Sasha had escaped from class with grateful swiftness, so there isn’t anyone to giggle with, and it isn’t in any case that sort of happiness. She wants a five-mile walk over rough terrain at double-speed, or the ringing shock of a bayonet driving through flesh. Something sharp and shining terrible. After Madame Kosigan had departed and they had put away their ballet shoes, she had found Sasha throwing knife after knife perfectly into the centre of their paper targets. It is like that, a welling up in the chest overwhelming everything. Thinking of that, of Sasha’s long fingers careful against the thin steel of her knives, she goes up carefully on her toes within their heavy boots and into one of the forms Madame Kosigan had beaten into their bones. It is more difficult to be graceful on the paved court-yard than on the slippery polish of Madame’s salon, but the difficulty suits her mood. Twice ten minutes in, she feels eyes on her, and then the slow tread of a big man attempting silence: she knows those eyes, but it is nothing, really, to do with him that she loves him, or that it fills her with joyous lunacy. At thrice ten minutes she stops, out of breath and every limb quivering. She has gone from the rigid grace of ballet into the riotous wildness of a celebrating child, and that is terribly worrying. Her speed and strength are of no use if discipline bleeds from her.


At dinner she is quiet and neat, and Sasha grabs her wrist when they rise from the table and pulls her sternly to their dormitory. They play chess while Katyusha and Tatyana fall asleep, and then Sasha jack-knifes into bed beside her and murmurs query. She stays silent for a count of twenty heartbeats and then rolls to meet Sasha’s eyes barely visible in the light filtering in from the corridors. It has been barely three months, and she should ask one of the others and not dig into Sasha’s scars. But the others are half the length of the dormitories away, and there is little chance of talking to them in the day, now that they have all begun to specialise, and Sasha had come to her first, even though she had known nothing of it at all. She pushes up on an elbow, hair falling away from her shoulders, and asks, “Was it worth it, with Madame Kosigan? After they found out.”


Sasha says, “You know that it will end and end badly and that it will be worse if he responds?”


She nods, throat tight with joy. It would be wrong and terribly if it were easy, if it went well.


Sasha gives her a rare smile. “Then, Natochka, it is. Is that why you were dancing after class? For the Winter Soldier?”