For this month’s WEP contest entry, I decided to revisit some of the characters from my alternative history, set in a 20th century Russia where the monarchy was restored. Maslenitsa, Butter Week, is comparable to the Western celebration of Carnival.
Wordcount 981; MPA
Dina gazed around with wide eyes as she walked down Nevskiy Prospekt, taking in all the bright colors on display. Everywhere she looked, there were stalls offering painted wooden toys, satin ribbons, elaborate fabrics, sparkly costume jewelry, puppets, ikons, and all manner of tempting merchandise. In addition to the visual feast, the famous luxury thoroughfare was also blanketed with the delicious scents of warm gingerbread drizzled with vanilla icing, pastries, spices, fruity teas, roasted nuts, and of course butter-drenched blinchiki.
But of all the treats on offer on Nevskiy Prospekt during Maslenitsa, the most exciting were the birds. Each cage was more exquisite than the last, and housed fancier and fancier birds. Dina couldn’t make up her mind as she walked back and forth between the birdcages.
“How many birds can I adopt, Mama?”
Dina’s mother Arkadiya looked away from a blinchiki stall. “Will you still be interested in them a few months from now, and can I trust you to take care of them all by yourself? Birds aren’t as easy to care for as dogs and cats.”
“I’m almost eleven, not a little kid like Shura. My cousins get birds every year, even the ones younger than I am.” Dina pulled her rubles and kopecks out of her blue pony coat pockets. “Papa gave me lots of money before we left.”
Arkadiya smiled knowingly. “You’ve always had your papa wrapped around your finger. I’d be shocked if he didn’t give you enough money to buy this entire avenue.”
“I’ll take really good care of my birds. I want big ones with really colorful feathers. Little birds aren’t as fun as big ones.”
“They also make more noise and mess.” Arkadiya called to her older daughter Eleonora at a gingerbread stall a few feet away. “Elya, would you mind keeping birds in your room?”
“Why not? It’ll be fun.”
“Can we take them into our schoolroom too?” Dina asked. “They might get lonely if we’re not there all the time.”
“You don’t take your dogs and cats into your schoolroom,” Arkadiya said. “If you get more than one bird, they’ll keep one another company.”
“They should have a really big cage,” Eleonora said. “Birds can’t be very happy in cages their whole lives, just like fish aren’t supposed to live in tanks. God designed them to fly and swim around the entire world.”
Dina walked back and forth among the birdcages. “Now that we don’t have to spend money on the war anymore, Papa can get an architect to add a new room to the palace. What’s the word for a special room full of birds?”
“Aviary,” Arkadiya supplied. “You can ask him, but he might not be able to do that immediately. There are a lot of other things he needs to spend money on more than building an aviary for his pet child.”
Dina stood on her toes and unhooked a large golden cage with three sun conures in brilliant shades of orange and yellow. She set it on the ground and then unhooked another large gold cage, this one housing two macaws in eye-popping shades of sapphire blue. Before Arkadiya could do or say anything to protest, Eleonora unhooked a platinum cage of four parrots in alternating swathes of reddish-orange, blue, and yellow, followed by a silver cage of seven budgies in lovely pastel shades of blue, green, and yellow. Each cage had plenty of bird toys, a water dish, and birdseed.
“That’s all my daughters are getting today, Madame,” Arkadiya called to the bird vendor. “There’s only so much room in our car.”
“You have excellent taste, Your Imperial Highnesses,” the vendor told Dina and Eleonora. “All my birds are beautiful, but these are so much more eye-catching than most of my canaries, doves, lovebirds, and finches.”
“Can Shura have a bird too?” Dina asked. “She’ll be jealous of us if we have pretty birds and she doesn’t.”
“She’s only three and a half,” Arkadiya said. “Shura shouldn’t have any pets at her age.”
The bird vendor reached behind her stall and handed a large stuffed green parrot to the youngest child of the Tsar and Empress, who greatly resembled the murdered namesake she’d never know. “Will that be all today, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, those are all the birds my daughters need. These new pets will keep them busy for a long time to come.”
Eleonora and Dina counted out the money for their colorful birds, and Arkadiya produced the money for Shura’s stuffed animal. Without waiting to be signalled, the servants who’d accompanied the Empress and her daughters came forward to transport their parcels and the birdcages to the deluxe-sized Rolls–Royce they’d arrived in.
“Your business is always appreciated, Your Majesty. Enjoy the rest of your Maslenitsa, and tell His Majesty I hope he speedily recovers from his latest injury.”
“It’s only his bad knee again, nothing more serious or life-threatening, but I’ll pass along your well wishes,” Arkadiya said. “I wouldn’t have come here if he were severely injured.”
Dina and Eleonora climbed into the car as soon as Arkadiya joined them. The entire drive back to the Aleksandr Palace, they chattered to their birds and thought up names.
“Can we come back tomorrow to buy birds for Papa?” Dina asked.
“Doesn’t he have more than enough pets already?” Arkadiya asked gently. “He’d adopt an entire zoo’s worth of animals if he could.”
“Papa must feel like a bird in a cage when he’s sick,” Eleonora said. “He knows what other people can do, but he’s stuck.”
“We all learn to adapt to our circumstances and our own version of normal. Even when the body is confined, broad horizons are open to the mind and soul.” Arkadiya reached into the conures’ cage and gently stroked them. “And sometimes the most constricting cages are the ones we can’t see. It’s all a matter of perspective.”