Because 17 and 18 July are the 104th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial Family, I’m sharing Chapter 15, “A Sad Anniversary,” of my alternative history And Aleksey Lived. It closes Part I, “The Boy Tsar.”
A gallery of pictures follows the chapter.
In the middle of the night on 17 July, Aleksey awoke with a sharp, bitter feeling crushing his entire being. When he turned on the bedside lamp and looked at the little clock Mikhail had gotten him for his name-day in October, he saw it was a bit after one in the morning, about the same time he’d been awoken exactly a year ago today. A year ago, he’d still had parents, a complete family, somewhat more of a sense of innocence. The shattered innocence of captivity was preferable to the completely destroyed innocence which had descended in the cellar. Now he had no choice but to forever live with the images of his parents being murdered in front of him, and being shot at himself.
He threw off the covers and stood up, almost forgetting there were calipers encasing his legs. After taking a few minutes to adjust to the darkness, so he wouldn’t trip or bang into anything, he carefully walked around the room and turned on every light. He also lit a few candles, though they were only supposed to be used for emergencies or religious purposes. Even after the entire room had become flooded with light, the nightmarish images wouldn’t be chased away as easily as the light had chased away the darkness. He still saw his father picking him up and carrying him out of their bedroom, out of the house, through the courtyard, down the stairs, and into the cellar, with his mother and sisters following behind, along with their servants. Even his sisters’ two dogs had come into the cellar. Only Joy had been spared that cataclysm, though had Aleksey been able to walk, he would’ve brought his dog there too.
Aleksey clomped over to the easel and uncapped a container of black paint, not caring which particular type of paint it were. Paint was paint, even if his new art tutor was trying to teach him the differences between each medium. He then found the largest brush in the tin can stuffed full of brushes, plunged it into the paint, and frantically moved it around the canvas. After filling about half the canvas with black swirls and streaks, he opened a canister of dark grey paint, found a new brush, and added that slightly different color to the painting. A little bit of space was still left, so he found the darkest red possible and maniacally jabbed the brush into the white spaces. As he shoved the dripping brush all along the bottom of the canvas, his throat tightened and he began hyperventilating.
Hoping to open the windows for fresh air, he went to stand up, but was paralyzed in place. He could feel his legs, but couldn’t compel them to move. His hands shook as he rolled up his pajama pant legs and fumbled for the buckles on the right caliper. This wasn’t successful either, as his fingers were shaking too badly to perform any fine motor operation.
“What’s happening in here?” Mikhail asked. “Why are there so many lights on in the middle of the night? I heard odd noises and went to investigate, thinking there might be a rodent.”
Aleksey opened his mouth to respond, but his throat was too dry to speak, and his tongue was just as paralyzed as his legs. He struggled to raise his arm and point at the calendar.
Mikhail’s eyes softened. “It’s been a year since you lost your parents, hasn’t it?”
Aleksey could only nod.
“What are you painting? That’s a lot darker and more abstract than anything I’ve ever seen you draw.” Mikhail looked down and saw his nephew’s rolled-up pant legs. “Were you trying to remove your calipers? You’ve made too much progress to suddenly reverse it all now.”
“It’s the cellar.” He barely managed to utter these words. “If I put it on paper, it might leave my mind forever.”
Mikhail strode over to his nephew, knelt by him, and enfolded him in his arms. “Those memories will live as long as you do. You can’t compel them out of your brain by painting them, drawing them, sculpting them, or writing about them. If I could, I’d put all your bad memories in a sealed iron box and throw it into the bottom of the ocean, but memory doesn’t work like that. We have to live with all our memories, both good and bad, our entire lives. We can’t just remember the happy times. Ugly memories are part of who we are, and shape us into the people we become.”
“But I have more bad memories than most people. Not just the cellar, but all those times when I almost died before that. Why couldn’t I die with my parents in the cellar, or any number of times before that? I was never destined for a long life. God should’ve taken me long before then, so I wouldn’t have to become a prisoner and be shot at so many times.”
“We can’t understand God’s reasoning for keeping you alive so long, in spite of your disease. Maybe it means God really wants you to become Tsar, and has destined you for great things beyond your imagining.” Mikhail released his nephew and stood up. “If you want, I’ll spend the rest of the night here, so you’ll feel better if you have another nightmare. There’s a special memorial service for your parents in the morning.”
“In the Palace Chapel?”
“It’s in Saint Catherine’s Cathedral, since we’re expecting a very large crowd. You can walk there and back without crutches, can’t you? Thank God you’re no longer a shadow of yourself as you were when all this madness happened. Maybe taking a longer walk than usual will help to restore more of your strength.”
“I guess I can walk that far, though I prefer to pray in the Palace Chapel and Fyodorovskiy Cathedral, if I have to leave palace grounds.”
“I wouldn’t make you walk that distance if I didn’t think you could do it. We never really understand what we’re capable of till we’re right there in the moment. The bounds of a human being are something we can never comprehend, no matter how much we’re astounded by them.”
Aleksey clomped back to bed as Mikhail went around turning off all the lights and extinguishing the candles. Before Mikhail put off all the lights, he turned the easel around, just in case that image might frighten his nephew even more upon awaking.
“You’re my favorite uncle, Dyadya Misha,” Aleksey said after Mikhail shut the door and got into bed. “I bet my other uncles would think I were a baby if I asked them to spend the rest of the night with me. I’m almost fifteen.”
“You can’t know for sure unless you ask them, but I can’t imagine anyone, family or not, volunteering for that duty.” Mikhail patted his nephew’s shoulder. “Now try to go back to sleep, and conserve all your strength and emotion for the memorial service.”
Mercifully, Mikhail decided to go to St. Catherine’s Cathedral in one of his luxurious automobiles instead of walking all the way there. No one wanted to walk when they could drive, particularly considering this church wasn’t as close as Fyodorovskiy Cathedral, so Mikhail took out his dark green Chalmers and two Peugeots. Aleksey’s sisters and their husbands would take the Peugeots, and everyone else would ride in the exquisite Chalmers.
“Your uncle’s always falling asleep at the wheel,” Natalya said as she climbed into the car. “If I don’t poke him in the ribs when he nods off, he’d land in a ditch or roll over in the middle of the road.”
“I won’t nod off when my own nephew is a passenger,” Mikhail said. “How could I risk the life of our only hope for the future? That would be so hypocritical, after I’ve been so strict about the management of his health.”
“You nod off no matter who’s in the car or where you’re going. Actions speak louder than words.” Natalya reached for her almost-three-month-old baby Vera as she was handed over by an English governess.
During the brief drive to the church, Aleksey sat between his cousins and looked at the passing scenery. He’d always loved riding in cars, and driving his toy Mercedes Benz and his father’s cars. It was horrid to be forbidden from driving again, but at least Mikhail hadn’t barred him from being a passenger. So long as he was in a car, he could try to live vicariously through the driver and pretend he were the one driving. When he was older, he might have a nice collection of cars like Mikhail, from faraway places like Italy, France, England, and America. Perhaps when a few more years had passed, he could acquire German cars. The taboo against anything and anyone German would have to eventually dissipate.
Mikhail brought the car to a stop near the church, and let Natalya out before opening the passenger doors. The usual crowd milled around, waiting for a glimpse of their ruling family. Aleksey took his uncle’s other arm and stayed close to his side as they walked through the crowd into the church, though people still reached out to touch them and pronounced blessings.
“Behave yourselves,” Mikhail barked inside the church. “My nephew and I aren’t circus animals to be gawked at. We’re normal people, not just the Regent and Tsar.”
While the crowd was distracted with looking at Aleksey’s three obviously expecting sisters, Mikhail found his nephew a chair close to the ikonostasis. By the time everyone moved into the church, Mikhail, Natalya, and Vladimir blocked the view of the seated boy Tsar, and no one was any the wiser.
The priest began chanting the prayers for the dead and swinging a censer. As always, Aleksey couldn’t bring himself to follow along or respond. As much as he still believed in God, the God he’d believed in had died in the cellar along with his parents. It was impossible to go back to that innocent, overly pious faith. He knew too much, and couldn’t pretend everything was the same. Even his nun aunt Ella hadn’t resumed exactly the type of faith she’d had before her captivity.
“Don’t clutch the sides of the chair too tightly,” Mikhail whispered. “You don’t want to bruise your hands or fingers.”
Aleksey called to mind images of his parents in happier days, on Shtandart, at Livadiya, watching films and slideshows on Saturday evenings at home, as they appeared in the picture inside his Fabergé egg. Then the ugly, hateful images returned, of his parents’ shocked expressions right after the evil ringleader had pronounced the death sentence on his father, how they’d looked as enemy bullets entered their bodies and killed them instantly, their lifeless, bloody bodies lying on the cellar floor as a thick haze of gunsmoke drifted through the room and his sisters screamed. No one came to comfort him during the mêlée, as his sisters had comforted one another. He’d been all alone in that armchair, his father’s lifeless body slumped in front of him, his mother’s lifeless body off to the side, no one to hold him during his threatened final moments. Only a last-minute reprieve from the Angel of Death had saved him from the grave.
Aleksey stood up from the chair and put his arms around his uncle, as the final words of the prayer for the dead filled the air. He shut his eyes to try to stave off the thick grey clouds threatening to rupture, but to no avail. They still trickled from behind his eyelids, so copiously his uncle’s shirt had to be getting drenched.
“Why couldn’t the last year have been a nightmare? I wasn’t supposed to lose my parents like that, and I don’t want to be the Tsar when I’m so young.”
“You’ll be okay, no matter what’s going on in your mind and heart now,” Mikhail reassured him. “I’ll always have your back and give you all the love, protection, and normalcy your parents can no longer provide. You’ve got me and your sisters to grieve with, and we’ll never abandon you.”
“My sisters abandoned me in the cellar. None of them came to hold my hand, hug me, or anything. They knew I was too sick to move, and they only cared about themselves.”
“Don’t be upset at them for that. Who could think straight in such a terrible situation? You probably weren’t thinking straight either.”
“I was too scared to do anything. At least I never screamed or cried. I wish I hadn’t let myself get so emotional now. You must think I’m really babyish.”
Mikhail patted his nephew’s auburn hair. “I’ve told you, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. This is a sad anniversary, and even if it were just another day, men are allowed to cry.”
“You really think of me as a man?”
“No matter how young you are, I don’t think anyone can deny you’ve become a man in your heart. The people might consider you their boy Tsar, but as far as I and everyone in our family are concerned, you’re more of a real man than other people your age. Your heart has a special maturity and sensitivity that don’t come to just anyone, and those precious characteristics will help make you into a great Tsar, just as they made you into such a special young man.”
Murdered on 17 July 1918:
Tsar Nicholas II (Nikolay Aleksandrovich), born 6/18 May 1868
Empress Aleksandra Fyodorovna, née Princess Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice of Hesse and by Rhine, born 6 June 1872
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna, born 3/15 November 1895
Grand Duchess Tatyana Nikolayevna, born 29 May/11 June 1897
Grand Duchess Mariya Nikolayevna, born 14/27 June 1899
Grand Duchess Anastasiya Nikolayevna, born 5/18 June 1901
Tsesarevich Aleksey Nikolayevich, born 30 July/12 August 1904
Dr. Yevgeniy Sergeyevich Botkin, born 27 May/8 June 1865
Anna Stepanovna Demidova (lady-in-waiting), born 14/26 January 1878
Ivan Mikhaylovich Kharitonov (cook), born 2/14 June 1870
Aloiziy Yegorovich Trupp (footman), born 5 April 1856
Murdered on 18 July 1918 (though most took several days to die):
Grand Duke Sergey Mikhaylovich, born 25 September/7 October 1869
Sister (formerly Grand Duchess) Yelizaveta Fyodorovna, née Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Luise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine, born 1 November 1864
Sister Varvara Alekseyevna Yakovleva, born circa 1850
Prince (né Grand Duke) Ioann Konstantinovich, born 23 June/5 July 1886
Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich the younger, born 20 December 1890/1 January 1891
Prince Igor Konstantinovich, born 29 May/10 June 1894
Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley (really a Romanov), born 28 December 1896/9 January 1897
Second from left above and second from right below is Grand Duke Sergey’s secretary Fyodor Semyonovich Remez, birthdate unknown