Happy Halloween! This year’s Halloween-themed excerpt for the holiday comes from Chapter 95, “Andrey Opens the Door,” from Vol. IV of Journey Through a Dark Forest. It’s set in 1945.
Lyuba frets as Darya shuts her suitcase on Halloween morning and heads downstairs. “Are you absolutely sure you want to go a co-ed party Lika’s throwing instead of enjoying Halloween with your family? Look how nicely we decorated the house! You don’t have anything in common with those co-eds, and don’t know them. If you’re worried about men at an unchaperoned party, I’m sure Andryusha will be the only fellow there. Men are really hard to find on campuses these days.”
“It’ll be nice to meet other people my age and get out to do more things. I have to see what campus is like eventually, since I hope to resume my studies, and I want the school closest to home.”
“What will you do with yourself on Thursday and Friday while Lika’s at class? Walk around a strange, large city you don’t know, or wander around a strange campus? What if you get lost, or someone assaults my darling miracle baby?”
“The worst has already happened. A change of scenery will do me good.”
“Since when do you want to go to university so soon? You insisted you couldn’t bear to do that, and now you’re envisioning a near future as a co-ed?”
“It’s not healthy to only interact with family and close friends. I need more outside interests and friends. Whoever heard of a well-adjusted twenty-one-year old still living at home, without a real outside life? Even if I never marry, I deserve my own life.”
Lyuba gently smiles. “Don’t discount the thought of marriage. I once spurned the thought of marriage and motherhood myself, as a reaction against what happened to me, but the right man healed my heart. Perhaps your own future husband is closer than you realize, and he’ll wash away those disgusting memories of that degenerate on the train. After what you went through, you deserve a loving husband, a beautiful wedding, and darling children.”
“No, I’m quite sure I never want any man touching my body.”
“If it’s the right man, you’ll want him to touch you. Trust me on this.”
Darya shakes her head and continues out the door to the waiting wagon. She smiles at her father, and doesn’t attempt to contradict him when he goes on and on about how she’ll miss their family while she’s away for five days, and that she’s not cut out for campus life, or life away from her family period. Once his mind is made up, it’s very hard to convince him otherwise. If he happens to be right, the worst that can happen is Darya will decide campus life isn’t for her, and return home none the worst for wear.
Darya pulls into the depot at 3:00, on-edge from travelling by herself on a train for the first time since that incident with the degenerate. She’s shaking as she grabs her suitcase and rushes off the train in search of Andrey and Anzhelika.
“Over here, zaychik,” Andrey calls. “How do you like me in uniform?”
Darya smiles when she sees Andrey in an old Army dress blue uniform. Anzhelika is dressed as a milkmaid. A lot of people are smiling at Andrey and saluting him, blissfully unaware this is a Halloween costume and that he got out of the war without a scratch.
“I got it at a consignment shop the other day. It’s from between the wars, when uniforms were a bit more fancy. I really feel bad for not serving and doing my part to save you and Liivi.”
“You look very nice in uniform, though I hope you don’t wear it everywhere to trick people into giving you better service and more respect. Eventually, decent people will have to realize not everyone was meant to be a soldier.”
Darya follows them onto a streetcar and lets Andrey carry her suitcase when they unboard near campus. She looks around in wonder, absorbing all the sights and sounds. This is nothing next to the Sorbonne, but it’s a big university.
“This is my home, Sanford Hall,” Anzhelika says, indicating a Colonial-style building. “Andryusha lives in Pioneer Hall. I suspect we’ll have to find an off-campus apartment when we’re graduate students. Andryusha will be safer from mean comments in his own home, and for all the new students will know, he’s a returning GI.”
“Lika’s house mother knows you’ll be staying here for a few days,” Andrey says. “She doesn’t know you have tuberculosis.”
“Good. Someday that damned disease will disappear.” Darya steps into the building and identifies herself to the house mother sitting behind a desk, then signs herself in as a guest.
“You’re friends with the draft-dodger?” the house mother asks disdainfully.
“Of course. We’ve been neighbors our entire lives, and I’m only three months younger than Andryusha and Lika. He’s too much of an intellectual to survive the military. It’s a marvel his father survived seven months in a Siberian labor camp, since they’re so similar.”
The house mother makes a dismissive face as they continue on to Anzhelika’s room.
“I hope you’re not too disappointed there won’t be any guys but Andrey at this party,” Anzhelika says as Darya looks around and starts unpacking. “Men are hard to come by here. I’m sure Andryusha isn’t the only fellow with a student deferment, but the only other guys I know of are 4-Fs, much-older students, fellows with families or important jobs, medical students, and guys in the V-12 Navy program.”
“Oh, no, I’m not interested in men. Just between us, as much as I want children, I’ll probably be an old maid, or have a celibate marriage and adopt kids.”
“You’re not interested in marriage?” Andrey tries to put on his best poker face. “Perhaps we can talk about this in psychotherapy. I hope you’re not scared off marriage because someone hurt you worse than we already know about.”
“It’s not important. Something bad happened to me a long time ago, which I don’t want to discuss. It’s too personal and upsetting.”
“Of course. I hope eventually you feel safe enough to bring it up when I’m counseling you. I hate the idea of our zaychik being hurt like that.”
After Andrey is gone, Darya takes out her Halloween costume, a dark blue Victorian-style gown sweeping the floor, with long sleeves, a high neckline, a four-tiered skirt, buttons up the back, and a wide sash. Only a serious, modest costume will do.
“I can’t believe I have the body to wear this,” Darya says as Anzhelika helps her into the dress. “Six months ago, I was a bag of bones, an ageless, sexless hag. Now I look like a woman again.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a boyfriend? It’s been so long since you were abused on that train, and the right man won’t force anything on you.”
“Even if that hadn’t happened to me, there’s still the last few years. Who’d want such damaged merchandise? Normal men want normal women. Don’t try to use the example of my parents. They were both scarred inside.”
“You never know. The right man might surprise you and appear when you least expect it.”
Darya holds Anzhelika’s hand as they set out for the campus center that evening. As they’re walking, she keeps imagining this campus becoming her campus and starting her university education all over again, better late than never. She has no illusions about her Sorbonne classes transferring, since she never completed that first semester. True to Anzhelika’s word, there are very few men apart from professors and employees. This could almost be Tatyana’s alma mater Barnard.
The room in the campus center is decorated with die-cut skeletons, lanterns shaped like devils, black cats, jack-o-lanterns, and skulls, candy containers in the shape of scarecrows and jack-o-lanterns, cut-out bats and spiders on the walls, a display of Halloween greeting cards, a die-cut orange moon with owls and leaves in the forefront, and streamers with black cats, pumpkins, and skeletons. Anzhelika’s friends include a clown, witch, American Indian, pirate, Renaissance princess, Pilgrim, fairy, and Bohemian. Darya lets Anzhelika introduce her to everyone, grateful Anzhelika isn’t telling them her true story. All these women know is Darya was in Paris during the war, studied at the Sorbonne briefly, and had her education interrupted by the Nazis.
“What would you like to do first?” Anzhelika asks. “We have bobbing for apples, fortunetelling, cutting a fortune cake, floating a walnut boat, telling ghost stories, and a Ouija board.”
Darya grabs the knife and cuts into a cake with raspberry icing, trying not to cut an overly large piece so she won’t make a bad first impression. She plunges her fork into the cake until she hits the baked-in charm, a ring.
“Marriage within a year!” Anzhelika proclaims. “Before long, you’ll have your pick of eligible bachelors. All the men will be coming home soon, and it won’t take much to turn their heads after being deprived of women for so long.”
Andrey stands back as his sister and the other guests cut into the cake and discover a horseshoe, penny, bells, fleur de lis, anchor, castle, crown, heart, and kite. He’s left with the last slice, which contains a flower.
“New love is blossoming,” Anzhelika interprets.
“With whom?” the fairy laughs. “Maybe your brother will find a college widow or a sad old maid who can’t get any other man. How damn emasculating, to have to marry a much-older woman. The only younger guy I ever dated was just six months younger, and even that felt odd and unnatural.”
The clown hands out dry crusts of bread, giving none to Andrey. “If you eat this at night, any wish you make on it will come true. And if you sleep with your pajamas inside-out, you’ll dream of your future husband. That’s easier than walking backwards out the door at night, picking grass, and putting it under your pillow.”
Andrey stands back as the ladies proceed with fortunetelling and bobbing for apples. He represses his urge to lecture them on how the Ouija board isn’t scientific, knowing full well they won’t care. He’s only here as a sympathy guest because he’s Anzhelika’s twin. At the end of the party, he hangs off in the shadows as Anzhelika’s friends go off to their various dormitories before curfew.
“Now I see what you meant,” Darya whispers. “It was easy for me to condemn you in the abstract, but not after I saw how all this criticism really affects you. You’re a good person, even if you haven’t served.” She hands him her bread. “You deserve to make a really nice wish and have it come true. I don’t know what I’d wish for other than to be normal again.”
“No, you deserve a nice wish too. Maybe you can wish you’ll find a sweetheart soon. I don’t believe in fortunetelling, but you never know if something might come true. I really hope your fortune in the cake comes true.” Andrey tears the crust in half and gives the other piece to Darya. “Sweet dreams. I hope you get whatever you wish for, and maybe even dream of your future husband.”