Phoning Sonya

This was originally one of a batch of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 as planned future installments for the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time. E.g., I no longer pedantically use accent marks, and my Canadian characters’ summer home on Vancouver Island changed from Long Beach to Gonzales Beach.

***

Katrin is the only one in the beach house who has a phone on her floor. She’s also the only one with enough disposable income to make a long-distance call, and to not worry about the other party not being in when the call goes through. Not knowing exactly when Léna’s family is supposed to come back from Long Beach, Katrin has placed daily calls to their home in Toronto during the last week of August and the first few days of September. Today, September 4, Sunday, she finally gets a response.

“Hello?” Natálya asks. “We don’t usually get calls on Sunday.”

“This is Katariina Kalvik-Nikonova calling from Long Island. Can you call Sónya to the phone, please?”

“Who’s on the phone?” Naína whispers.

“That’s Natálya Yeltsina, the youngest sister in that family,” Katrin says while Natálya is fetching Sónya. “She’s thirteen now and a charming child.”

“Hello?” Sónya asks. “Is there an emergency with Léna and Natásha’s mother or older sisters?”

“Sit down, Sófya Mitrofanovna. We’ve had two special guests with us this entire summer, guests whom my husband found on Ellis Island and decided, spur of the moment, to sponsor and put up in our home to avoid deportation. Your niece Naína Yezhova and your best friend’s daughter Kátya Chernomyrdina are here in this house, in this room, alive and well.”

Sónya screams.

“Are you alright, Bábushka?” Yuriy asks.

“God is good. God is good. I’m going to see my dear sister’s child and my best friend’s child again in this lifetime. My own children were taken away from me, but I still have one blood relative alive in this world.”

“We’re returning to Manhattan the day after Labor Day, Lyuba and Iván’s fourth anniversary. How soon can you or someone in your family be at the depot to meet them? I was planning to send my husband or my butler as the male escort, and possibly my maid, to avoid scandal in sending two young ladies on a train with only a man as company.”

“Put my niece on the phone. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in eight years.”

Naína is shaking so badly she can barely hold the receiver, not only because she last saw her aunt when she was just seven years old, but also because she doesn’t want to be blamed for the loss of Kárla and Mikhaíla.

“Stay right where you are. I’ll come down on the next train and my surrogate daughters and son-in-law will get the house ready for you. We have a spare room we can convert into a bedroom. I’ll leave some money for them to buy a mattress and some modest furniture. Thank God you’re alive. Kátya can spend some time perfecting her English, and then she can join my surrogate daughters Tónya and Léna and Léna’s husband Karl at the University of Toronto. I know you’ll be sixteen soon, old enough for high school. I’ll talk to the principal and see if you can have a translator or tutor, so you won’t be too many years behind. Praise Christ for preserving your lives and bringing you to safety in the land of the free!”

“My friends the Lebedevas told me you work at a Russian bakery and haven’t remarried. I always assumed Dyadya Maksím had been murdered, and I know my parents and Kátya’s parents are no more, but I always had a special feeling you had to have survived and come to North America. Now I know the story about how Iván Konev helped you and my older friend Álla escape from prison.”

“I’m not going to rest easy till I’m standing in front of you and Kátya and able to see and touch you again. Don’t worry, I’ve known about Mikhaíla for seven years. That wasn’t your fault. That was all on that sadistic, deranged madwoman running that orphanage. My youngest surrogate daughter Natálya told me she ended up at that same orphanage two years later, and the warden’s double-crossing pet had her sent to prison.”

“Do you still love us after we lost Kárla?”

“I’ve been essentially childless for eight years. I’ve spent more years of my life without children than I had them in my life. At least I still have memories, and one photograph of my precious girls, taken shortly before I lost them to the Reds.”

Naina and Katya Arrive at the Penthouse

This was originally one of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time. E.g., the final version doesn’t pedantically use accents, and Katrin wisely leaves out the very personal information about Matryona’s painful past. Instead, she just says “If not for the Civil War, both might’ve been married years ago.” The birthdate I created for Sandro (not Sandros) also makes him already 29 as of June 1927.

***

“We’re on the top floor,” Katrin says. “It’s a penthouse suite, which is sort of like a luxury apartment. My husband and I are going to a wedding tomorrow, so we’ll have to trust you to mind yourselves while we’re gone. A friend of mine has a stepsister who’s getting married at the high age of thirty-five. Her husband-to-be is a few years younger. The bride-to-be isn’t a physical virgin, but her betrothed is modern and enlightened, and understands some terrible things happened to good people during the Civil War.”

“We lost everybody to the Revolution and Civil War, except maybe my aunt,” Naína nods. “I used to have two cousins, but the older one was beaten to death by some grotesque orphanage warden in St. Petersburg. The little suitcase we brought with us belongs to my younger cousin. She disappeared on the train taking us from our Kiyev orphanage to Cherkasi last January, and we never found a trace of her after that. We hope she’s alright, if she were found before the worst happened, or if she only got lost instead of being kidnapped.”

“Well, you’re in a free country now. I have to warn you, there are a lot of discrepancies between rich and poor, and a lot of government-sponsored censorship, both of ideas and speech, but at least this is a far better place to be than the Soviet Union. I was a Bolshevik once, but I discovered they weren’t being true to the real ideals of Socialism. Now I’m involved with real Socialists, not people who only espouse one way of thinking.”

Oliivia timidly walks up to the visitors, dragging her doll Aurelia behind her. “Eesti, vene, või inglise keel?”

“These nice girls speak Russian. Right now they have to unpack their things and get settled in a bit, but I’m sure they’d love to play with you, your sisters, and your godbrother when they’re more relaxed.” Katrin turns back to Naína and Kátya. “I don’t suppose you ladies know any Estonian. This one’s Oliivia, my oldest. She’s smart. She’s fluent in Estonian, Russian, and English, and she’s only three and a half.”

“The only other language we know is Ukrainian,” Kátya says. “But we’re not stupid. We’ll work very hard to learn English. Does your maid ever speak her African language?”

Katrin laughs. “Mrs. Samson was born in this country, and her family’s been here for quite some time. Most Negroes don’t speak African languages unless they’re recent immigrants. As far as I know, she doesn’t know where in Africa her ancestors came from, and she has no desire to learn any of the African languages. But she will teach you the latest jazz dances, if you’re interested.”

“Are your other female servants English?” Naína asks. “Their names sounded English to me. I assumed your butler is Greek.”

“Greek? Does he look Greek to you? He doesn’t even have dark hair or eyes!”

“But isn’t Rhodes one of the Greek islands?”

“Who knows how the name of the island came to be an English name. No, all of my servants are of English descent except Mrs. Samson. They were all enlightened enough to work for an Estonian, and we enjoy a good working relationship. Many people in this country are very racist against anyone not originally from Western Europe.”

“But this entire country is made of immigrants,” Kátya protests. “Even the Indians had to come here from Siberia.”

“Don’t ask me to explain why so many people are so hypocritically racist in a nation of immigrants. I never understood such a strange attitude myself. By the way, will you be going to church? My family goes to a Unitarian church, and Stásya goes downtown to a Russian Orthodox church. She goes with Mrs. Whitmore and Dmítriy, but makes them ride on another level of the bus or a respectable distance from her on the subway. Her reputation would be ruined if it were found out by the wider public that she’s got a bastard son.”

“She actually kept a bastard?” Naína asks.

“She moved back with my family after I discovered she was pregnant, and made up a story about a long illness to explain away all the months she missed at work. I also made her give birth at home, since God knows what would’ve happened to her in the hospital.”

“It’s normal to give birth in hospitals here? I thought only very sick people went there.”

“You’ve got a lot to learn about American life. But right now, all you need to do is unpack.”

“We haven’t gone to church since 1919,” Kátya says. “I don’t think either of us remembers how to behave.”

“What’s a Unitarian church?” Naína asks.

“It’s a very progressive Protestant denomination. If you go with Stásya, you can just copy what other people do. They’ve got some benches there, since it used to be a Roman Catholic church. A lot of the people stand or walk around during services anyway, since they’re so used to having done that back home. I’m sure we can find some scarves for you to cover your hair with if you go there.”

“Can we ask how old you are?”

“Twenty-seven. Stásya just turned twenty-eight, and Sándros is going to be twenty-nine in a few months.”

“Wow, you look very good for having had five kids at your age. I can only imagine how many you’ll have within the next ten years!”

“None. I was fixed in January, when my youngest Viivela was a month old. I wanted five, and I got five. Now I’m medically assured of remaining at five forever.”

“You’re allowed to be sterilized in this country without a medical emergency?” Kátya asks. “This is like a science fiction story come to life!”

“I went underground, but yes, there are doctors out there willing to secretly perform the procedure on women who know they’re done having kids. In public, only prisoners and morons are generally sterilized. You can learn more about my views by perusing the articles I’ve written for the various left-wing Russian, Estonian, English, Latvian, and Lithuanian publications when you’re done unpacking.”

Naina and Katya Meet Katrin

This was originally one of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time. I now no longer pedantically use accent marks, and Katrin’s husband Sandros became Sandro.

***

It’s now Naina and Katya’s second day in America, and they’re being picked up by Katrin, who’s agreed to let them stay with her and Sandros until they leave for vacation. The two teen girls, who barely remember life before orphanages, are in constant marvel at everything they see in America.

***

On Friday morning, after having breakfast in the communal dining room, Kátya and Naína are approached by one of the Ellis Island officials and a Russian translator. They obligingly follow the officials after being told their sponsor’s wife is waiting for them at the Kissing Post with two of her servants. Kátya and Naína’s eyes widen in delight at the thought of someone who started out as an immigrant already being rich enough to afford servants.

They stand and gape when they see a woman with blonde hair cut as short as a man’s. They’ve known bobbed hair is in fashion for women, but not that women in North America are allowed to get away with cutting it even shorter. The second thing they notice is the woman with dark brown skin. Neither of them has ever seen anyone with such dark skin before, except in pictures. Naína represses the urge to wonder out loud if she and Kátya might be suffering from consumption, since their skin is so pale in comparison to the servant’s healthy dark skin.

“Hello. My name is Katariina Kalvik-Nikonova. You met my husband Sándros yesterday. I’m Estonian too, but Russian is my second language. You may call me Katrin, though I also go by Kati and Kadri. The Negress is my maid Mrs. Samson and the man is my butler Mr. Rhodes. Mrs. Samson came to help me with my baby Viivela, and Mr. Rhodes came as our male escort. Unfortunately, women travelling alone still run the risk of being assaulted, particularly in a place like this.

“We live in a very nice neighborhood called the Upper West Side, in a penthouse suite. You’ll find plenty of room to put yourselves up till we go on vacation. I hope my husband’s instincts were right and that you’re on the level. We live with my best friend Anastásiya, who runs a very successful bridal salon; her bastard son Dmítriy, a year and a half old; my five little girls, Oliivia, Mireena, Milena, Ilme, and Viivela here; my nanny, Mrs. Woodward; Stásya’s nanny, Mrs. Whitmore; my twenty-year-old sister Viktóriya; my cook, Mrs. Oswald; and Mrs. Samson and Mr. Rhodes here.”

“Is it true all Americans are rich like you?” Kátya asks.

“Unfortunately, no. I can tell you more about that in private. For now, we should get on the next ferry into the city.”

“I can’t believe you have a real butler!” Naína says. “Just like in all the old British books!”

“You may be sharing your living quarters on vacation with the youngest stepsisters of one of my friends. They’re twenty-two, eighteen, and going on thirteen. We all know many people in the Russian immigrant community, so we may be able to help you find anyone you’re looking for. We also know some people in Canada who might be of help.”

Naína and Kátya follow them out of the building and onto the next departing ferry. The entire way over to the penthouse, as they’re riding on the top level of a bus, they take in the city sights with wide eyes. Even the beautiful historic landmarks they saw in the Ukraine and Varna don’t compare to the amazing tall buildings, movie palaces, and beautiful architectural styles of the houses and apartments they’re passing. They hope they’re not gaping at the foreigners on the bus. If they knew any English, they’d tell them they’re not staring to be rude, but because they’ve never seen dark skin, turbans, or Asians in person before.

Upon their arrival in front of the building, they stand and take it in with the same voraciously wide eyes. They know America is a lot younger than Russia or the Ukraine, and that the buildings they’ve seen so far are probably mostly only a hundred years old or younger, but that doesn’t detract from their sense of awe and wonder. They know if they went to other places in the world, the local landmarks and architecture would make Russia and the Ukraine look like babies. Back in the orphanage, Sarah sometimes told them how there are buildings thousands of years old in Palestine, and Ohanna told them about the ancient buildings and ruins in Armenia.

WeWriWa—Served by the Alberighis

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, when 20-year-old Darya Koneva and her friends entered a diner run by Italian–Americans, the Alberighis.

One of the young waitresses smiled at Dmitriy and asked how he got five dates, wondering if there were one girl from each borough to see him on leave. He admitted four of them are his godsisters, and that Darya is his oldest godsister’s best friend.

Ema means “mother” in Estonian. Dmitriy calls his godmother Katrin “Ema Kati,” and calls his blood mother Anastasiya “Ema Stasya.” For the first few years of his life, he believed Katrin was his mother, since Anastasiya was almost completely uninvolved in his caretaking.

Darya slumps against Viivela and picks at the plate of fried potato wedges brought over with a bottle of ketchup.  When the entrées come, she longingly inhales the scents of tuna melt, grilled cheese, hamburger, clam chowder, and fried haddock.  She can hardly believe she’s not rushing to wolf down so much delicious food, and that there’d ever again come a time when she’d lose her appetite for any reason.  Three months ago, she didn’t need any prompting to swallow soup with broken glass, worms, and cloth; sawdust bread; raw potatoes and turnips; or vegetables with mold.

“I bet Ema Kati’s already writing a big article about this,” Dmitriy says as he sprinkles oyster crackers into his chowder. “I’ve always been surprised how she’s never been questioned or arrested for being so openly Socialist, particularly during wartime.  She’s written so many articles criticizing Japanese internment, racist anti-Japanese propaganda, the draft, the treatment of conscientious objectors and people performing alternative service, segregation in the military, the xenophobic immigration quotas keeping out people desperately trying to escape the Nazis, and the censorship and downplaying of reports of Nazi atrocities.”

One of the waitresses sets a bowl of minestrone and a glass of cherry Italian soda before Darya. “My grandfather insisted you have something.  You’re probably hungry, even if you don’t feel like eating now.”

 In my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, Katrin’s Socialist activism and decades-long career with left-wing newspapers finally catches up with her. When she arrives home from a trip to Japan in 1950, to survey the bombs’ damage firsthand, she’s arrested and put on trial.

WeWriWa—The first guest to arrive

If you’re observing Tisha B’Av, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week, I’m sharing the opening of Chapter 9, “Increasing Attraction,” of my fourth Russian historical. After last week’s snippet, Violetta agreed to come to Igor’s birthday party, and after he left, she and her baby sister Flora begged their mother to keep mum about how they had polio.

Violetta then phoned Igor’s great-aunt Valeriya and a number of other people who know her secret, begging them to keep mum too. When Igor arrived home, Valeriya was on the phone with Violetta. Valeriya urged him not to get his hopes up so much after only one meeting, and said he might find someone else he likes even more. She also said good relationships take time to develop.

The Kalvik penthouse has long been used as the site of many celebrations and get-togethers because it has a lot more space than anyone else’s house. Katrin Kalvik-Nikonova, the mistress of the household, is a longtime friend of Igor’s parents, and the one who paid for Violetta’s iron lung so she could finally go home for Orthodox Christmas 1943 and not lose her security blanket.

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To make sure the Kalviks and their servants understand the importance of keeping mum, Violetta arrives at Igor’s birthday party at 5:45, ahead of all the other guests.  Though she’s sure all the other young women will have fashionable knee-length skirts and dresses, she’s changed from her ankle-length turquoise school dress into a teal blouse with elbow-length sleeves and a black ankle-length skirt.  The only time she wears modern knee-length hemlines is at home, without any company, where she feels safe revealing the caliper on her right leg.  At least she no longer wears a caliper that goes under her foot or around her ankle.  With the somewhat shorter caliper she can hide under long hemlines, she’s able to compensate for her unfashionably long hemlines with pretty, fancy shoes, anklets, and nailpolish.

“You’re awfully early,” Katrin observes, looking up from a Japanese textbook. “I suppose you wanted to see Mireena and Milena before anyone else arrived.”

“Well, yes, but I also wanted to make sure you remembered what I told you on the phone last Saturday.  This is really serious business.”

****************************

Katrin is teaching herself Japanese (her twelfth language) in preparation for a journalistic trip to see the aftereffects of the bombs. This trip will eventually land her in lots of hot water with McCarthyists, and will be one of the book’s other major storylines.

P.S.: Happy first birthday to my rook piercing! This was my eighth piercing, my seventh ear piercing, and my first real cartilage piercing (not counting my nostril). Sadly, I recently had to retire my beautiful navel piercing because of obvious rejection, but I’ve still got all nine of my ear piercings and my nostril, and I have plans for many more ear piercings. The rook is the barbell with blue gemstones going through the antihelix crus, the small, thick cartilage fold at the top of the ear.

Rook closeup