Day of All Days

To mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day, I decided to post the full text of Chapter 80, “Day of All Days,” of Vol. III of Journey Through a Dark Forest. My sources for researching this chapter included:

World War II Chronicle, David J.A. Stone et al.
World War II Day by Day, Antony Shaw
D-Day: Minute by Minute, Jonathan Mayo
http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent1/?file=dday_main
http://www.americandday.org/
http://normandy.secondworldwar.nl/index.html
The Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach – The Canadians On D-Day
“No Ambush, No Defeat”
“Canadian Participation in the Operations in North-West Europe, 1944: Part 1”
Valour on Juno Beach, T.R. Fowler
D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny, Lance Goddard

Fedya’s hand is clenched around St. Vladimir so tightly his fingers have turned white, while his other hand rests against one of his prized pictures of his little family of three. On his right, Vasya numbly recites all the most important prayers like a broken record, and on his left, Osyenka stands on his tiptoes and cranes his neck, staring out at the wide expanse of ocean in the dim light. Behind them, Leontiy reads from a pocket-sized prayerbook, softly muttering the Church Slavonic words.

“We’re closer to Dasha and Liivi than we’ve been in years,” Fedya says, his voice shaking. “I hope to God we’re invading in time to save them.”

“You’d better keep low to the ground,” Osyenka says. “You’re taller than most guys, and will probably be a moving target.”

Fedya briefly lets go of the ikon to cross himself, ignoring the odd looks from fellow soldiers. Like his father and little brothers, he’s always crossed himself left-handed. It never made any sense to insist upon the right hand for crossing oneself when it doesn’t come naturally to use that hand. God surely must have better things to do than get upset about what hand people use for praying, particularly since there’s a worldwide war on.

“I hope we’re not gunned down as soon as we start moving towards the shore,” Osyenka continues. “My parents would have several strokes and heart attacks if this is another Tarawa. At least we’re not facing off against the Japanese like those unfortunate Marines.”

“The Germans have no idea we’re coming, as far as we know. The Army, unlike the Marines, knows how to plan a surprise invasion and send out false information. Our people also know more about weather and tides.”

“I’m glad we’re not airborne. I’d panic to death if I had to parachute right into a warzone, no idea what I’d be landing in.”

As they get closer to the shore, the sound of artillery slowly gets louder and louder. Leontiy shoves his prayerbook into his rucksack, while Vasya starts reciting the prayers even louder and faster.

“We had Last Rites yesterday,” Fedya says. “If we’re going to be killed, no amount of prayers in the world can change our fate. But I’d like to think—”

A loud blast tears through the air, and the Higgins boat is knocked slightly off-course. A few minutes later, a second blast reverberates, and the boat is knocked about again. This time, Fedya feels cold water rapidly swirling underfoot. The next thing he knows, the boat has come to a standstill on the sandbar, and the ramp goes down. He has no time to react or say anything before he instinctively begins moving as fast as he can through the knee-deep water, through the sand, and towards the nearby hill. It’s not easy with so much weight strapped to his person, but he makes pace to the best of his ability. Many times, he has to step over dead bodies from the earlier first wave of the invasion. He loses sight of the other three as bullets whiz around him, the sky lit up like the Fourth of July. For the first time, he fires his rifle at real combatants, though the enemy’s too distant for hand-to-hand combat. Most of the gunfire seems to be coming from the looming cliffs. He hopes he’s aiming at the right people and not accidentally shooting his own. He can’t afford to stop or turn away every time someone nearby goes down, though he has to stifle his overwhelming urge to vomit when he sees all the blood, guts, and gore, particularly from exploded body parts. All these guys were so alive and hopeful just moments ago, and suddenly they’re no more. If he were in a different spot, or had been in their position a moment earlier or later, he might’ve been the one blown to smithereens by a mine or shot down like a sitting duck.

“We made it so far,” Vasya whispers to him as they take shelter and assemble their weapons at the foot of the hill, throngs of other soldiers around them. “Let’s hope the landing was the worst part.”

“I knew I’d make it,” Osyenka says as he loads his rifle. “I’m the most special only son and child of old age who ever lived. God wouldn’t give me to my parents if I were meant to be taken away after only twenty years.”

“I don’t think we’re with the right group or in the right place,” Leontiy confesses. “I don’t recognize any of these other guys, and this location doesn’t seem like it matches the place on the map.”

“Join the club,” another G.I. says. “My buddies and I got lost too.”

“My surviving company seems to be all here, but this isn’t the place we were told to fight,” a lieutenant agrees. “I don’t think anyone will get in trouble for getting lost, considering almost everyone seems to be very confused and didn’t land in the right places. They’d have to court-martial everyone, and that wouldn’t help us win the war.”

The several commanding officers who’ve landed among this crazy quilt of different units, companies, divisions, and regiments eventually give orders to start up the bluffs. Fedya hates having to go back into the direct line of fire again so soon, but he’ll be off this damned beach and closer to the center of action. From this distance, his rifle can’t reach most of the enemy forces. He keeps as low to the ground as possible as he crawls up the bluff, no time to give thanks when bullets whiz off his helmet instead of striking the unguarded parts of his body. It’s maddening to be unable to see exactly who’s firing at him, and to fire back.

2

“I don’t want to go back to England so soon after I finally got into combat. Just patch me up and send me back out there.”

Yuriy pours saline over the wounded soldier’s shoulder, where a fairly large piece of shrapnel is lodged. “If you insist, we won’t send you to England, but you should rest up for at least a day. You can’t defend Canada very well if you’re too injured to fire a gun or throw a grenade properly.”

Another medic pulls a sheet over a badly maimed soldier. “It’s too bad we can’t save them all. These boys waited so long to get into combat, only to be killed before they could really start fighting.”

“Why aren’t you removing the bullet?” a soldier demands of the third medic. “Do you want to kill me?”

“It’s usually a bad idea to remove anything that punctures the skin unless there’s a real, known emergency, contrary to what the movies show, and what a lot of otherwise intelligent doctors think. It could make the bleeding even worse if you pull out a foreign object. That foreign object could be the only thing keeping you from immediately bleeding out and hemorrhaging.”

Yuriy ties a makeshift tourniquet over the arm of the next wounded soldier carried to him. “Don’t try to move your arm until we know for sure the bleeding stopped.” He injects morphine, and then the soldier is carried to the recovery area.

“You’re lucky you got up here without a scratch,” the next patient says. “Medics should be allowed to carry guns. If you’re wounded, you can’t do much to help us.”

Yuriy pours saline into the patient’s right knee. “I have a pretty penpal to survive for. She could never be more than my friend, but I’m looking forward to seeing her in person again. She writes such nice letters, and is prettier in every picture.”

“What, does she have another fellow?” the second medic asks. “I wouldn’t let my girl exchange letters with another guy, unless he were a lifelong friend who truly didn’t see her as anything more.”

“No, she’s a single co-ed. She’s too young for me. She’ll only be twenty this month, and I’m twenty-five. We met when she was barely eighteen. I’ve never told her I fell for her. Plus, she’s in New York, and just went to live with her father’s family two years ago. I doubt they’d be happy if she left them to live in Toronto after barely having any time to get to know her.”

“That’s not so much younger,” one of the patients says. “This life is so fragile. Why not tell her as soon as you see her again? Maybe she’s meant to be your wife, and you’ll never find a woman you like so much again. We all deserve pretty girls to come home to.”

Yuriy dives to the ground as a loud blast reverberates and shakes the tent. He curses his red hair as orders are given to evacuate and move to a somewhat safer location. These damned snipers probably can’t see his armband from this distance, but they will see that red hair, even under the helmet he’s mercifully been permitted. The wounded soldiers able to walk evacuate with the medics, though they move much slower. Yuriy wonders why he bothered to try to help them when surely at least a few will be killed anyway. If this invasion goes even more badly, there might not be any Allies left alive by the end of the day.

3

From the ditch on top of the bluff, amid continued fire raining down from the cliffs, Fedya can see Omaha Beach laid out like a horrific panorama. The beach and water are littered with dead soldiers; abandoned, destroyed tanks and weapons; Higgins boats and Navy boats, many also blown apart; and fresh waves of soldiers continually coming ashore, only to be met with the same unabated, intense German gunfire. If he makes it to a safe place and there’s enough of a break in hostilities, he’d like to draw this scene and others from memory with the set of seventy-two colored pencils he got from the Derwent company while he was stationed in England. If he has to take several years off from university to fight, he might as well keep his artistic talent nurtured when he can.

“Turn around,” Vasya whispers. “The Germans are up there, not down on the beach.”

Fedya maneuvers his way around and mutely accepts an order to load a machine gun, then goes back to lying low and waiting. When Wehrmacht soldiers approach, he grabs his rifle and aims, while many other soldiers nearby do the same. He smiles when he sees each Wehrmacht man falling to the ground. They surely have families who’ll miss them, but these are the same people who let Darya and Oliivia be taken away. No further Germans approach, and he goes back to blindly firing up at the cliffs, almost numb to the constant barrage of noise.

Fedya is too relieved to have the cognizance to erupt into cheers like most of the other soldiers when several American tanks drive by, unscathed from the barrage on the beach. Without waiting for an invitation, he, Vasya, and Osyenka volunteer to ride on one of the tanks, their rifles still at the ready. He feels like a great conquering hero as he climbs up, and infinitely more protected than he was in the ditch or on the beach. Every time he sees a Wehrmacht soldier, he immediately shoots.

“Aren’t we supposed to secure the beach and nearby bridgeheads?” Fedya asks as the tanks start moving again, the rest of the crazy quilt marching in formation alongside them.

“We’re probably not going out of this immediate vicinity,” the soldier commanding the tank says. “It’s easier to sweep through the area like this. Maybe tomorrow we can start going through houses and businesses to root out any Nazis. If only we could swiftly beat a path to Berlin. This war will probably still be on for at least a few more months.”

Osyenka grins from ear to ear as he fires a rifle grenade in the direction of every pillbox he sees, while Leontiy is put to work assembling Bangalore torpedoes and cutting through barbed wire. Fedya and Vasya continue throwing grenades and firing their rifles. Gradually, the cacophony from the cliffs starts to taper off.

“The bastards must be running out of ammo,” Vasya says. “Had to happen sometime. This beachhead will be ours soon.”

Fedya smiles at the sight of dead and wounded Germans littering the ground. “I can’t wait till every single Nazi is dead and cold. I wonder if Dasha and Liivi know such a big invasion has been launched to rescue them.”

“They’re not the only people we’re saving. I bet the French will be really happy to see us, and might help us. Once we root the Nazis out, it might be easy sailing to go from town to town.”

“We’re not taking any POWs, are we?” Osyenka asks. “These Krauts don’t deserve to live after what they’ve done. We should kill them all while we’ve got them in our sights.”

“Not on our watch,” the tank commander says. “Even if they pretend to surrender and want peace, we can’t be sure they’ll keep that promise. I don’t want to find myself and everyone else murdered by Krauts we took pity on.”

Fedya smiles even wider and continues firing at every single pillbox and German in his line of vision. “That’s for kidnapping my sister and her best friend, you worthless wastes of oxygen.”

4

Yuriy’s commander storms into a house pointed out by several teenagers in the French Resistance, while the medics and twelve other soldiers follow him, carting the wounded. The wounded who survived the earlier bombardment in the hospital tent have mostly crawled and been dragged here.

“We have it on good authority this is a Nazi house,” the commander shouts in German. “You’re going to leave right now and give up your beds to the Canadian wounded, or you’re all getting a bullet to the brain.”

The husband begins to babble in German-accented French, which makes the armed soldiers pull their guns on him. One of them paces up to him and rips off his left sleeve, revealing a Gothic A in black ink.

“Imagine that. A dirty Kraut was lying to us. You can’t lie your way out of a damn SS tattoo. Who the hell else gets this kind of tattoo in exactly that spot?”

The commander pulls his trigger, and Yuriy flinches at the sight of the blood and brain fluid splattering out of the maimed head. The three children run screaming, while another soldier shoots the wife.

“Good riddance. If only every Kraut were this easy to dispose of, we could get to Berlin in a month.” The commander kicks the dead man. “I want people posted as snipers and lookouts from every window and door while someone moves these bodies outside. Then we can start moving the wounded inside.”

Yuriy is slightly jealous of the soldiers who get to have guns, while he’s stuck as a medic. Even if he’s training to be a veterinarian and actively volunteered himself as a medic when he enlisted, it’s not as fun and exciting as killing Germans, leading charges, and shouting orders. The soldiers he’s treating are the real heroes, the ones who’ll have the exciting war stories to bring home. He’ll have to make do with telling his family about pouring saline in wounds, injecting morphine, dispensing pain relief pills, tying tourniquets, setting bones, plastering casts, and amputating extremities. But for Inga, he’ll tell the infinitely more exciting story of how he survived the onslaught of carnage at Juno Beach.

After all the wounded are toted inside, Yuriy is assigned to a patient with a gaping, bloody wound in the lower right leg, with bits of shrapnel riddled throughout. He looks off to the side as he pours saline over it.

“Did you already have morphine?”

“Yes, but I’d like some more.”

“I’d love to give you extra pain relief, but we have to be careful about how much we give each man. We have so many wounded, we can’t afford to give extra doses to every single guy.”

The next patient has four fingers on his left hand blown off, the stumps oozing sickening, constant blood. Yuriy is queasy as he ties a miniature tourniquet on each stump. Even after each stump is tied off, he still feels queasy looking at the mutilated hand.

“Am I a pansy for not continuing to fight? I still have one good hand.”

“It depends on the injury and your personality. Some soldiers continue to lead charges and fight after they’re shot several times, but this isn’t a minor flesh wound. Depending upon your prognosis, you might have to go home, or back to England. The Army might be so desperate for guys in uniform they’d still have you, provided you can get along with only one complete hand.”

Once all the wounded have been brought inside and treated, and no further patients seem immediately forthcoming, Yuriy walks around to each one, on all three floors, to check on their progress. Several have since had the ominous white sheet pulled over their faces. Yuriy makes the sign of the cross over each dead man.

“Should I go back out there to help the latest wounded? I don’t want to feel useless just sitting here twiddling my thumbs while more guys are getting wounded.”

“If you’d like. Just remember, lay low to the ground and don’t get too close to the front lines. You’re a combat medic, not an active duty soldier. Let the other guys be heroes fighting the Nazis, while you focus on being their hero by helping them.”

The moment Yuriy crawls outside, the thunderous roar of gunfire becomes even louder. The Germans are finally running out of ammo, so the Allies will soon have control of Normandy. Fifty feet away from the house, he comes across several fresh corpses and one wounded soldier by a Bangalore torpedo. The vicinity is strewn with other dying and dead soldiers, too many of them to do much to help. Yuriy feels the bile rising in his stomach at the sight of bloody, dismembered hands, fingers, arms, feet, and legs. He hopes he never, ever has to see a decapitated head or half a body. He was uncomfortable enough when he saw the movie Freaks at thirteen, though he’d far prefer to be confronted with dwarves, conjoined twins, living torsos, and other sideshow performers than these maimed remains and wounded soldiers. Sideshow performers are otherwise healthy and able-bodied.

“Will the war be over soon?” a soldier asks as Yuriy rips open his shirt to put pressure on a gunshot wound in the stomach.

“After today, I really doubt it.” Yuriy injects morphine, his hand violently trembling. “All we can do is hope the rest of this battle is as swift as possible, and that we won’t be fighting next year at this time.”

5

Lyuba lights five candles in church, then has a seat in one of the relative few chairs available. She misses having a church which used to be Catholic and thus came with plenty of pews.

“Fedka and the rest of our boys have to be fine,” Ivan says numbly, taking the chair next to her. “Fedya was our miracle baby, my first blood child, our firstborn son. God wouldn’t give him to us only to take him away so soon. Mira needs a husband, and Felya needs a father. He has to come home. God wouldn’t have given Vasya to my aunt as her second chance at motherhood only to take him away either, and Osyenka’s one of the most special only sons who ever was created. Lyonya needs to come home to Dora and Olik, and Yura has a lovely family who can’t wait to have him back. All five of them will be fine.”

“You don’t know that! Our beautiful little boy could be lying dead on the beach right now, and Vasya, Osyenka, Lyonya, and Yura along with him! Yura isn’t allowed to have a gun, and can’t defend himself!”

“I should be over there too, being useful,” Nikolay rants as he lights his own candles. “Are you sure my stupid draft deferment can’t be lifted now that the invasion’s finally begun? They’ll need lots of replacements to take the place of all the guys getting killed. Everyone will look at me suspiciously since I wasn’t there.”

“You’re a farmer, not a soldier,” Tatyana reminds him. “We’re helping to feed the military and the people working in war industry jobs. We wouldn’t be expecting our second baby if you’d enlisted.”

“There are plenty of other farmers who can help with providing food. We can have children any time, but the war won’t be on forever.”

“Yes, but we wouldn’t have this particular child. We’d have a different child, just as I wouldn’t be here if Boris hadn’t manipulated and forced my mother into what he did.”

“You’re lucky you’re at home,” Novomira says. “I hate having my husband away at war, never knowing what’s going to happen to him. Maybe this makes me ungrateful and unpatriotic, but I don’t agree with all these people who are so happy and excited to send their husbands and sons off. If he wants to enlist, fine, but I won’t pretend it’s a wonderful, beautiful sacrifice I’m making. If he’s killed, I won’t consider him a martyr and hero. He’ll just be another soldier who was killed, a soldier who happens to be my husband.”

“You know how it is during wars,” Lyuba says. “The jingoistic majority drowns out the people against war, or who don’t paint war as a wonderful, glorious adventure and noble, manly sacrifice. Thank God my Vanya wasn’t taken for the last war when he turned eighteen, since he was still in gymnasium.”

Edik wrinkles his nose. “I can’t believe how unpatriotic and ungrateful you people are. If the war’s still on when Marik and I graduate, we’re enlisting immediately. I can’t live down the shame of my older brother refusing to serve and getting a grotesque deferment to go to university. University can wait, but the war can’t.”

“Keep your voice down,” Kat warns him. “There are other people here who don’t want to hear our personal business, and it’s rude to talk too loudly in church. Andryusha’s doing his part by helping at USO events.”

“How, by serving drinks and cookies, clearing tables, and playing records? The real men, the guys going off to war, must be so disgusted when they find out he’s a pansy who won’t serve. The WACs, SPARS, WASPs, WAVES, and lady Marines are more manly than Andrey.”

Pozhaluysta, watch what you say about Andryusha. He’s always been such a good big brother to you and Marik, and would never dream of speaking so meanly of you, particularly not behind your backs.”

“At least some men in our family are doing the right thing,” Nikolay says. “Those five guys over there are heroes, alive or dead, and the sooner they help to end the war, the sooner Dasha and Liivi can come home. Someone has to fight, unless you like the idea of never seeing Dasha and Liivi again.”

Lyuba crosses herself. “It’s been almost five years since I saw our zaychik, and since Katrin saw her Liivi. If God is just, we won’t have to wait even one more year to see them again.”

6

Darya grips Oliivia’s right hand and Halina’s left hand as the Kumiegas’ secret radio broadcasts the news from the Polish government-in-exile in London. Over the last year with the Kumiegas, she’s picked up a rather serviceable command of Polish. It also doesn’t hurt that Polish is rather similar to Russian.

“The Allies are finally here,” Halina breathes. “They’re on their way to save us. We won’t be Nazi prisoners forever.”

“How long will it take them to get to Berlin?” Maja asks. “I hope they have quick, successful battles in every single town along the way, so the war can be over by autumn. Maybe we can be home for Christmas.”

“We’ve been so lucky so far.” Darya runs a hand through her hair, which has been allowed to grow back since she’s an indoor laborer. “Our luck has to continue to hold long enough for the Americans to get here. I hope the Nazis don’t murder everyone first.”

“I won’t let anyone murder you,” Oliivia declares. “You have to live long enough to go home with me. Maybe they’ll have a cure for tuberculosis in the near future, and you can go to the best American hospital for drugs or surgery.”

“I am cured. When was the last time I showed any symptoms?”

“You’re not cured. All your skin tests show up positive. I’m glad it’s latent instead of active, but don’t kid yourself about being completely better. God knows if it’ll come back eventually, worse than last year.”

“Pani and Pan Kumiega, can we stay at your farm till the war’s over?” Maja asks. “I don’t want the Nazis to get mad about losing the war and take us somewhere else.”

Pani Kumiega crosses herself. “Only God can decide that. We can only hope the occupiers won’t decide to murder everyone as punishment and revenge. If we stay as relatively lucky and safe as we have so far, the war will end well, and we can resume our lives like nothing happened.”

Darya nods. “I’m not telling my parents I had tuberculosis or was in a death camp. They’ll never see the ugly number on my arm if I only wear long sleeves, and if my tuberculosis stops being latent, I can pretend I’m only getting it then.”

“It’s a very long way from Normandy to Poland,” Matviyko says. “So many innocent servicemen will have to die before they get anywhere close to us, and possibly the Soviets will get here before the Americans and British. It’ll be a miracle if anyone’s left alive by the end.”

7

The day after the invasion, Yuriy picks his way among the reeking, disfigured corpses and dying strewn over Juno Beach. It’ll take forever to catalogue and bury all these soldiers who were so alive and hopeful just yesterday morning. The relative few who haven’t succumbed to their wounds yet are probably too far gone to be helped. He smiles each time he sees a German body mixed in among the brave Canadian dead. The entire beach is pervaded by an eerie, unnatural silence, as though yesterday never happened. He still hears gunfire, but it’s slightly farther away. The Allies now have a toehold in occupied Europe.

Copyright Jebulon

“Am I in trouble for not trying to join back up with my company?” one of the wounded asks as Yuriy unwraps a leg tourniquet made from the soldier’s torn trousers fabric. “I was too confused and scared, so I played dead and stopped the bleeding myself.”

“A lot of guys got lost yesterday and ended up with the wrong companies, or in the wrong places. They’d have to court-martial almost everyone. A lot of companies lost so many men, they’ll have to bring in replacements immediately.”

The soldier winces as Yuriy pours saline over the wound. “Is there a way to tell if it’s infected?”

“I assume you had a tetanus shot after you enlisted. The worst is probably avoided. But I’ll give you an ointment just in case, and to help with healing regardless. I’m not looking forward to going back into the line of fire.”

“Are you a doctor from before, or just an Army medic?”

“I’m actually studying to be a veterinarian. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology, and took one year of vet school before I enlisted. My parents wanted me to have at least one year instead of enlisting straight out of university.”

The soldier faintly smiles. “I don’t really care your normal patients are dogs and cats instead of humans. All that matters is you’re helping me.”

“Oh, I had a very nice human patient two years ago.” Yuriy looks up and gazes across the ocean, still swamped with empty Higgins boats and destroyed tanks. “I might not be getting all the glory like you, but I’m fighting to stay alive for her.”

“You need luck more than me. It’s too bad medics can’t carry guns.”

After Yuriy finishes with this soldier and finds several others to treat, he picks his way over to the sandbar and wades in, averting his eyes from a Higgins boat piled with maimed corpses. On one side, an entire ocean separates him from Inga, while on the other side, the Germans are waiting to kill everyone. There’s no easy way to get home from here. Even if he makes it home alive, there’s still the battle to decide whether to let Inga know his real feelings, or keep it secret and watch her marry someone else.

But first things first. First the war has to be won, and that means defeating an enemy refusing to go down easily and peacefully.

WeWriWa—Diana and Pamela’s first Christmas

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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. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Since it’s December, I’ve switched to Christmas-themed excerpts (even though my own winter holiday is Chanukah). This week, the snippet comes from Chapter 90, “Cruel Christmas,” from A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, the fourth book about my Russian-born characters. It’s set during January 1951.

Diana (Dee-AHN-ah) and Pamela (Pah-MEL-ah) Zotova, newly turned eight months old, are staying with Lyuba and Ivan’s family in St. Paul while their mother Raisa and aunt Lyudmila, Raisa’s twin sister, are hospitalized. Raisa and Lyudmila realized too late they chose terrible husbands just to escape small town life and move to Minneapolis. They recently found much better future second husbands, but they first have to figure a way out of their unhappy current marriages.

Diana and Pamela smile big smiles at Irina as she unwraps the presents Raisa and Lyudmila got them, which Filaret delivered on Saturday. From their mother, they have a brightly-colored ring-stacking toy and stacking cups. Their aunt got them toy drums and rattles with cat heads at either end.  Diana’s rattle depicts Siamese cats, and Pamela’s has red tabbies. Out of fear of Gustav’s wrath, Filaret set up a savings account for them in lieu of physical presents.

“They’re so cute,” Tamara says. “Can we keep them? I want little sisters. Everyone else in our family has younger siblings.”

“They’re Raya’s babies, not ours,” Lyuba says gently.

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

“She’ll be very sad if we don’t give them back.”

“They won’t be happy to go home,” Sonyechka says. “Gustav is a very bad person. He doesn’t treat Raya or his babies very nicely.”

“That’s not our affair to meddle in,” Ivan says. “If Raya’s the good, sweet person we remember her as, she’ll come to her senses eventually and leave that mudak. If I’ve read the situation with the count correctly, Raya has her second husband waiting in the wings.”

“Speaking of future husbands, why doesn’t Toma open her gift from Marek?” Sonyechka holds up a jade green package.

Commingled pandemonium and sadness at Rudy’s wake

To mark Rudy Valentino’s 95th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m sharing the fourth section of Chapter 23, “Death of Valentino,” from The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks.

“Why again are we returning to the city during a heat wave to go to a wake for someone we never met?” Ivan pesters as they get off the subway on Tuesday. “I hate crowds, and I can already hear all those loony women screaming and weeping.”

“Because our grandkids will love to hear the story of how we went to the viewing of a famous moviestar who died in our adopted hometown,” Lyuba says. “And Kittey and Viktoriya were fans, though not crazy and obsessed like Anastasiya.”

“Do I see a riot in progress?” Eliisabet asks. “I’m sure he’d be so proud of his so-called fans for turning his wake and funeral into a three-ring circus.”

When they join up with Alla, Vera, Natalya, Fyodora, and Anya Godimova, they notice smashed windows in the approaching Frank Campbell Funeral Home and a number of police on horseback. Ivan wishes he hadn’t been talked into leaving their happy shore vacation to witness this madness.

“I don’t like seeing so many police in one place,” he says. “It brings back bad memories.”

“I’ve seen those uniforms in newsreels.” Vera points. “They’re Italian Blackshirts. What are they doing here?”

“There’s still time to turn around and go back to the shore. Who knows what all these police might do to us if they think we’re among the crazy people smashing windows and fainting. I wonder how many coffin-climbers they’ve had to restrain so far.”

“Police in this country only arrest you or use physical force if they have a good reason,” Eliisabet says. “They’ll see we’re normal people not causing trouble.”

“Clearly you haven’t seen many movies,” Viktoriya says. “A lot of cops arrest or follow people who haven’t done anything. They have God complexes like doctors.”

“That’s meant to be funny!” Kittey protests.

“I don’t think it’s very funny to see people, even in fictional situations, having their basic civil liberties violated.”

As they get closer to the funeral home, they see several policemen hauling a screaming, weeping, hysterical Anastasiya out the door and through the street. Anastasiya is fighting against the cops and trying to climb over them to get back into the funeral home, loudly protesting she’s a very important woman. Dagnija, who came as her companion, looks extremely embarrassed for her.

“Why does this not surprise me?” Katrin asks. “I just knew Nastya would be among the crazy, hysterical fans rioting and fainting.”

“How come dead people have to be displayed before they’re buried?” Tatyana asks. “It’s nicer to remember them alive, not lying in a coffin.”

“It gives people one last memory and chance to say goodbye,” Lyuba says.

“If that bad guy had killed Papa before you killed him with the fire poker, I wouldn’t have wanted to see him dead in a coffin.”

“Mama killed a guy with a fire poker?” Fedya asks. “When did it happen?”

“Our last day in Russia, a man from the secret police came into our house in Pskov and made his case for me being the escaped criminal everyone was looking for,” Ivan says. “Before he could fire his gun, your mother crept up behind him and hit him on the head with a fire poker. When he started to move, she stabbed him in the heart.”

“Wow, you’re really brave,” Fedya says proudly, smiling up at her. “If you hadn’t killed that bad guy to protect him, I never would’ve been born. Babushka and Dedushka think you don’t love Papa, but if you hated him, you wouldn’t have done that.”

“Yes, your mother’s the best life partner I ever could’ve asked for.”

A phalanx of police are assembled around the funeral home, and only allow Lyuba’s party to go in a few at a time. First Kittey, Vera, and Natalya go in, having been the biggest fans, followed by Viktoriya, Alla, and Fyodora, then Katrin and Sandro, then Eliisabet and Nikolay, then Kat, and finally the Konevs. Lyuba starts sobbing hysterically at the sight of the pale, emaciated body in the coffin.

“Can we go back to Long Island now?” Ivan asks, looking uncomfortably at the dead actor before shifting his gaze back to his children.

“Can you promise you’ll never take sick and will always look after your health, Vanyushka? He was only three years older than you, and might’ve lived if he’d gone to a doctor sooner.”

“Of course I’ll take care of myself for you and the kids. Hopefully I don’t have any longterm effects from breathing in all that iron residue and lifting all that iron. My cough is slowly going away too.”

“I never want to lose you so young. He must’ve gone through such agony before God finally put him out of his misery. Promise me you’ll die on the same day and hour as I do, when we’re old, not in the prime of life.”

“I’ll try my best.”

Someone calls to them that their time is up. Lyuba takes Katya from Ivan and walks out with Tatyana, while Ivan takes Fedya and Darya by the hands.

“Bye-bye, Mr. Moviestar.” Fedya waves. “I hope you have a good time with the angels.”

Happy Halloween!

This year’s Halloween excerpt is Chapter 122, “Heterogenous Halloween,” of A Dream Deferred, set in 1951 in St. Paul and NYC. To keep it as Halloween-specific and non-political as possible, I edited it down to 5,470 words from just over 9,000.

Irina rises early on the morning of Halloween and goes to her closet for the costume she thought up months ago. She pulls a short-sleeved, knee-length Lincoln green dress with four layers of pleats over her head, as always one of her own creations. She slips matching gauntlets onto her arms and fastens the brown leather straps. Irina savors the feeling of the brown leather belt going around her waist. This is a man’s belt, not a feminized version meant only for show.

The next costume components are a smart Lincoln green derby with a black feather on the left side, skintight Lincoln green pantalettes, and dark brown knee-high boots. Irina opens her wardrobe and takes out items she knows her father will have a couple of hemorrhages over, a dark brown leather quiver with two dozen arrows. Irina fastens a black leather sheath around her waist and puts a miniature sword inside. With the aid of her full-length mirror, she straps a bow to her back. She picks up a Lincoln green loot bag before going downstairs.

Ivan almost slices his thumb off instead of a slice of ham when Irina saunters up to the breakfast table. “Irisha, you’ve got to stop wearing such scandalous Halloween costumes! What’s wrong with your sisters’ costumes?” He motions to Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a suffragist and Roman princess.

“It’s called having my own sense of style.” Irina pulls out her sword and slices an apple.

“Where did that come from!” Lyuba shrieks. “How did we not know you had that, or the archery equipment?”

“I got the bow and arrows in the sporting section of Golden Rule, and refused to pretend I was buying them for a boy. The sword came from Andryusha’s antiques store. There’s lots of neat stuff there.”

“Can you really shoot arrows?” Sonyechka asks.

“We sometimes do that in physical education.” Irina puts bacon, scrambled eggs, dried apricots, and herbed goat cheese on her plate.

Ivan puts cherry jam on his toast. “A more important question is what Irisha’s dressed as this year. Is this a historic woman archer?”

Irina laughs. “Don’t you recognize Robin Hood in a female form, Papa? The Lincoln green should’ve given it away immediately.”

“But that’s a man’s costume! I’m relieved you didn’t cross-dress, but if you liked Robin Hood that much, you should’ve been Maid Marian. What’s wrong with her?”

“Too passive and boring. Robin Hood gets all the action and glory.”

“How about being a woman warrior, not just a lady’s version of a famous man?” Sonyechka asks. “We should write our own stories and not let men get all the glory.”

“That’s true, but there’s also a long tradition of women playing certain male roles on the stage, like Peter Pan and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. Other actresses were famous for playing male roles, and many operas have trousers roles. If men could play female roles for much of acting history, why can’t we do it in return?”

Ivan shakes his head as his womenfolk resume eating breakfast.

2

Lyudmila sends a smoldering gaze to Anton as he photographs her in a wizard costume barely meeting the fingertip rule. The studio of their Ditmas Park estate is littered with various Halloween props—crystal balls, brooms, paper moon cutouts, jack-o-lanterns, Tarot cards, stuffed black cats, cauldrons, owls, graves, zombie scarecrows, ravens, witch hats, bats, spiders. Several large trunks of Halloween costumes are off to the side. Musidora, Behemoth, and their five ten-month-old kittens prowl around and consent to being held by Lyudmila for some of the photos. These photographs will go out to clients seeking Halloween pinups, and the usual agents in charge of distributing pinups to GIs. Others are just for Anton’s eyes.

“I bet you know what this is for.” Anton hands her a heavy plastic jack-o-lantern. “You’ll get more treats tonight, but the treats in this are the kind you can keep.” He squeezes her right breast. “Not that I’m complaining about our fleeting treats. Those are a lot more fun than permanent treats, since they’re never the same twice.”

Lyudmila reaches into the jack-o-lantern and closes her hand around what feels like jewelry. She pulls out a long necklace with rough-hewn orange and black crystals first, followed by a strand of tiny, delicate pearls with a black crystal bat charm, a very wide bracelet with orange and black beads, large silver disc French hook earrings with dark blue spiderwebs painted on, and a black Bakelite brooch with nine black cherries suspended from it. At the bottom is a gold-leaf, illuminated manuscript of Rumi’s love poems.

“One year ago today, I met my zolotse and began realizing the greatest happiness of my life,” Anton says. “Little did I know I’d soon feel compelled to possess all of you, not just seduce you and have fun for a little while. I can’t wait till you’re my legal wife.”

“It’ll be too long till we have our first child.” Lyudmila pets Musidora. “Can’t we start coupling without rubbers? Dr. Sandvik said I have lowered odds of conception even after that surgery, so we might not be successful for awhile. By the time I’m free, our baby might be on the way. I hope I have identical girl twins first like my mother and Raya.”

“All things in due time, zolotse. You’ve got a great career, and shouldn’t cut it short by early motherhood. Don’t let any doctors scare you about supposed risks of having children over thirty. That’s not ideal or possible for everyone.” Anton smiles at Diana and Pamela toddling into the room, respectively dressed as a peapod and carrot. Raisa isn’t far behind them, looking more vibrant than she has in over a year.

“I’m going to miss this place when we’re back in Minneapolis,” Raisa says. “Can you arrange for Zotov to stay in Rochester even longer?”

“That’s beyond my power. Even if I could do that, Zotov can’t be too suspicious. You want a quick, clean divorce and full custody of your girls.”

Raisa kneels and puts her arms around Diana and Pamela. “I’m disgusted when I think about how I used to believe I was supposed to have one pregnancy after another, with barely any time in between. Why should I care about making up for lost time when my Diya and Melya deserve my complete attention until they’re out of babyhood? Had dear little Innokentiya and Mnemosina survived, Diya and Melya would’ve felt so cheated and ignored. Forget about the miscarried twins surviving. No woman in her right mind needs six children under the age of two.”

“I hope Zotov doesn’t immediately knock you up after your reunion,” Lyudmila says. “He doesn’t deserve any children.”

“They won’t be his children much longer, God willing. If I can finagle a divorce, Filya will adopt them. They must be so confused about who their real father is. I’ll be ill if they ever call Zotov Papa. He hasn’t done a damn thing to be worthy of that name. Even Batya is too gracious for that thing.”

“My lawyer will make sure you get an excellent divorce settlement,” Anton says. “You’re so lucky you’ve got a great second husband waiting in the wings. Most divorcées are left destitute and frequently passed up for employment.”

“Let’s not think about this now,” Raisa says. “The only thing we should care about today is having a happy Halloween.”

3

Milena, now in her fortieth week of pregnancy, sets off up the sidewalk with Tarmo and Meri by the hands. This year, she made Meri a bumblebee costume, a green dinosaur for Tarmo, and a gumball machine for herself. She barely fits behind the sewing machine anymore, and had to sit on her side. The sooner this baby comes earthside, the better. Milena wishes someone really could insert a nickel into her costume and cause the giant gumball to come cascading out.

Ilme and Milena come up behind them, holding Endla and Siiri by the hands. They’re each in matching mother-daughter costumes, French milkmaids and Rosie the Riveter, respectively. Endla and Siiri look around with wide eyes at all the bigger children in costumes.

“I can’t wait till mine is old enough for her first Halloween costume,” Milena says. “Though I’m glad she’s still baking. I’d hate to be housebound or in the clinic on such a fun holiday.”

“Are you afraid you’ll go into labor while we’re trick-or-treating?” Meri asks.

“Dr. Bellamy explained the difference between false and real contractions. None of the contractions I’ve felt over the last month were genuine. They’re just a dress rehearsal for the big show.”

“First-time mothers tend to go overdue,” Ilme says. “It’s not so common for a woman with a normal pregnancy to launch at exactly forty weeks.”

“You’re so lucky you’ll get to deliver in the new clinic,” Mireena says. “I wish I’d been able to enjoy such a personal experience. Dr. Bellamy’s rule-breaking didn’t extend that far. I got the next-best thing, but it wasn’t the same as birthing in a progressive clinic. Sulev and I will start trying for our next baby as soon as Ema’s free.”

“Taavi and I are waiting for that too,” Ilme says. “We would’ve begun trying already, but we didn’t want her to miss knowing another grandchild.”

“What’s the use of waiting?” Milena asks. “She might never get out.”

“She has to be freed,” Tarmo says. “Bad guys never stay in power forever. Do I have to testify at her retrial?”

“We’ll see what happens.” Milena smiles at Bogdana approaching them, pushing Eva’s pram.

“I’m a ladybug!” Klara announces. “Mama made my costume.” She leans against the pram and smiles down at her halfsister. “Evi’s an octopus.” She sounds out this word. “Očka says that word means having eight foots. It’s Greek. Evi’s a lot cuter than the pictures I saw. A real octopus isn’t purple.”

Bogdana lifts Eva out of the pram. “I had so much fun making their costumes. Being a wife and mother is so much more fun than pretending to care about studying music. I never want to resume my bachelor’s degree. That was so boring.”

“You might regret not finishing your degree someday,” Mireena says. “An educated woman is a valuable woman. Your girls will benefit from having a mother with a college education. Even if they choose to be wives and mothers only themselves, they’ll have an example of a woman with a higher education.”

“I suppose it’s not the end of the world if you never complete your degree,” Ilme says. “Life would be boring if everyone were exactly the same.” She rings the bell of a house with a blue door.

Mireena gently nudges Siiri forward. “What do you say, kallim?”

“Trick-or-treat,” Siiri says in unison with her cousins and Klara.

“Don’t they grow up so fast?” Bogdana whispers as the mistress of the house puts Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews into the children’s bags. “One day they’re babies, and the next they’re starting to become their own little people. I already feel time’s passing too fast with Evika.”

Klara runs to show her stepmother the candy in her bag, and Bogdana smiles at her. Mireena and Ilme take their daughters’ hands, and they continue to the next house.

“Do you miss not going to a college Halloween party?” Ilme asks.

“I loved going to parties and having an active social life, but Fate had other plans for me. I couldn’t imagine not being Achilles’s sweet little wifey and Klari and Evika’s mamashka. This is my life now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Achilles often told me I was screwing myself over by living my life by a set in stone checklist instead of following the dictates of my own mind and heart. It took a long time to figure out, but now I’m finally exactly where I most belong.”

4

Viivela smiles at Nikita and Marek as they set Halloween food on card tables and the coffeetable. Since she can’t go out, the Halloween party will come to her.

“I helped a lot,” Marek says. “Mr. Rhodes was right about how crummy Mrs. Oswald’s food wasn’t as gourmet as we thought it was. It only tasted and looked good on the outside. Inside, it was pure poison. The grub we eat now is a lot better.”

“Food always tastes best when it comes from your own hands,” Mrs. Samson says. “Even the simplest, cheapest meal feels more personal and delicious than five-star food prepared by a stranger in the world’s fanciest restaurant.”

“When you’re able to attend school again, perhaps you can join a cooking club or take cooking classes,” Nikita says.

“I’m never going back to school,” Marek says. “Even if Ema gets out of jail, the other kids will know what happened and never leave me alone. They’ll bully me every single second.”

“They won’t do that at a progressive school,” Mr. Rhodes says.

Nikita pulls a small samurai costume out of his schoolbag. “Guess who this is for, Marek.”

“Are my nieces coming?”

Nikita smiles and pets Baku. “Our furry little buddy, of course. What better costume for him? He’ll feel like he’s back in the land of his birth.”

“Can dogs wear clothes?” Viivela asks.

“Why not? I’ve seen them in catalogues.” Nikita lifts Baku onto his lap and gently maneuvers him into the costume. “You look like a million bucks now, Baku, and you match us.”

“I hope you don’t feel cheated, Nikusha,” Viivela says. “You must want to attend a real party with your friends.”

“I belong here. I’m too old for college parties. Every year, I feel more and more like a dirty old man among people barely out of high school. I barely have anything in common with the new freshmen, and they likewise feel the same.”

“But you’re only five years older than them,” Marek says. “Age differences aren’t supposed to be a big deal to grownups anymore. It’s the same reason time’s supposed to pass quicker.”

“Time doesn’t pass as quickly for me as for people well into adulthood, and age differences don’t level out like you think they do. Freshmen are barely my peers, just as I’m barely a peer to someone in his late twenties. We have different life experiences and maturity levels.” Nikita smiles at Marek. “But we’re still buddies. I’ve never seen you as a stupid, immature little kid I’m humoring. We’re genuine, equal friends.”

“Will we still be buddies after you marry Viivela?”

“Nikusha and I haven’t even gone on our first date or kissed yet,” Viivela says. “It seems obvious we should marry, but that can’t happen overnight. I’d also like to wait till Ema’s free. Mila and Vahur are waiting till then for their formal wedding, and Ilme and Mira don’t want to have more kids before then either.”

Marek takes a green hard-boiled egg out of an orange bowl and bites into it. “It’s not fair we have to put our lives on hold. More people need to protest. Mr. Brinarsky says silence is worse than active assistance, since those people know something’s wrong but choose to do jack to stop it.”

“Will you take your own advice and begin going out more?” Nikita asks. “You’re letting our enemies win when you hide at home all the time.”

“That’s different. They’re bullies who want to kill me.”

Nikita puts his arm around Marek. “No one’s going to kill you. I doubt anyone on the blacklists will be killed either, even very high-profile people.”

“Look at history,” Viivela says. “A hero always arises when it seems like things can’t get any worse. Redemption never happens overnight.”

5

Léa tucks her sword into its sheath and surveys herself in the full-length mirror before leaving for the Barnard-Columbia Halloween party. She spent the last week making a suit of armor from dark grey metallic fabric Pavel gave her. Had she had access to metal, she would’ve made a real suit of armor. Léa also made birthday girl Dessie’s costume, a turquoise and blue dress in the style of a Celtic warrior princess.

Beatrisa and Regina respectively assembled scarecrow and green witch costumes from storebought clothes and accessories, while Hestia bought a Little Red Riding Hood costume from Macy’s and Aelita repurposed a voluminous black velvet dress with an attached cowl and white silk cord bodice into that of a Medieval wise woman and healer who’d be accused of witchcraft.

“Dressing in men’s clothes makes me feel so powerful,” Léa declares. “I most prefer skirts and dresses, but trousers transform me from a helpless sex object to be gawked at into someone to be taken seriously. How could Jeanne d’Arc have led her troops to victory if she’d worn a damn dress? She’s my hero.”

“We call her Joan of Arc in English,” Regina says.

“I know, but that’s not her real name. No one in France called her anything but Jehanne or Jeanne, just as people in your parents’ homeland never called that incompetent buffoon of a Tsar Nicholas instead of Nikolay.”

“My father says similar things about Latinized Greek names,” Hestia says. “It’s understandable Latinized names became popular after Rome rose to power, but in the modern era, we ought to revert to proper Greek names.” She picks up her Little Red Riding Hood basket.

“Mira, can’t you take off that toothbrush moustache?” Beatrisa begs. “Everyone will give you dirty looks and immediately guess you’re not just a generic vaudeville performer.”

“What for?” Revmira adjusts her derby and swings her cane. “That Nazi goon shouldn’t have ruined this style of moustache even for a Halloween costume. I’m obviously not dressed as him.”

“Charlie Chaplin’s one of the most wanted public enemies on the blacklist,” Regina says. “Better safe than sorry.”

Revmira sticks her hands in the pockets of her baggy pants. “I’m dressing as Charlie Chaplin as a protest against his mistreatment. He was one of the most beloved people in the world for years, but now he’s worse than dirt.”

“His reputation, and the reputations of everyone else on those blacklists, will eventually be restored, and there’ll be full apologies,” Beatrisa says. “But in the meantime, it’s very dangerous to dress like him.”

“I’m sure plenty of people at this party will be dressed like Indians and Chinese. How many of them have that ancestry or any meaningful interest in those cultures? I’m dressing like Chaplin out of respect and solidarity.”

“You don’t want to end up like the Rosenbergs,” Regina says. “Better silent than a brutally honest blabbermouth.”

“What’s happening to the Rosenbergs is a complete mockery of justice,” Léa says. “I’m disgusted at all the Jewish organizations who’ve done jack, for fear they’ll be next. Dissent is what your country is founded on.”

“If I could get away with it, I’d take a ‘Free the Rosenbergs’ sign to this party and dress as a protestor,” Kommuna says. “Being Tituba is second-best, though I doubt any of these ninnies will guess the political significance of my costume, or even who I am.”

Léa leads the way to the social hall, wishing she could enjoy a private party instead of enduring a public circus full of people nothing like she is and unwilling to bend their views. The intellectual, Bohemian side of New York isn’t so felt in this Ivy League atmosphere, where everyone wants to blend in and be like everyone else.

Predictably, almost everyone has the same dozen or so popular costumes over and over again—witches, jack-o-lanterns, magicians, ghosts, wizards, Indians, Chinese ladies, cowboys and cowgirls, athletes, clowns, fairies, famous movie monsters. Léa, Revmira, and Beatrisa are among the few women not in skirts and dresses. Many people give dirty looks to Revmira, just as predicted.

Regina skips off to dance with Artur, who’s dressed like a baseball player. Hestia gently nudges Dessie towards Kasiodor, in a green velvet Renaissance costume. Léa crosses her arms every time a man looks in her direction.

“Are you free to dance, Miss Scarecrow?” a Russian-featured man in a friar costume asks Beatrisa.

“I’ll dance with any guy once if he’s not an ogre. Are you a freshman? I don’t recall seeing you at orientation.”

“I’m a junior. I bet you’ll never guess my name.”

“Is it Russian? I’d recognize your features anywhere.”

“You’re getting warmer, Miss.” He smiles at her. “But I’m no ordinary Sasha or Kolya. My name is much more uncommon, in any of its variants.”

Beatrisa thinks for a minute. “Is it Biblical?”

“No, it has other origins. All my siblings have very uncommon names, though the youngest and oldest escaped with fairly normal names. I bet you’ve never met anyone else with my name.”

“Do you have a modern Soviet name?” Beatrisa motions to Revmira, Aelita, and Kommuna. “They, and everyone in their family, have those names in lieu of traditional Russian names.”

“Belarusian,” Aelita corrects her. “We’re not Russian.”

“I was born in America, and my parents have no love for anything Soviet,” the friar says. “You can guess by letter, and see if you can match the correct letter to my unusual name.”

Beatrisa goes through the letters one by one, until he finally nods at the letter N. She tries to think of any unusual Russian male names starting with N, and unsuccessfully guesses Nikandr, Nikifor, Nikanor, Nikodim, Nikomed, and Nektoriy.

“My name is Niktopolion, after a fourth century martyr. There’s also a poet by that name, but my parents probably don’t know or care about him. They care less about modern culture. I go by Niko.”

“What a long-winded, pretentious name!” Beatrisa says. “Does anyone ever call you Niktopolion besides in official situations?”

“Never. Only my parents use my pompous real name. It’s pointless to give a kid a name he never goes by in real life, but my parents sure loved saddling us with rare names to show off their knowledge of Orthodoxy.” He smiles at her. “What’s your name?”

“Beatrisa, after my paternal babushka whom I’ve never met. What’s your surname? Perhaps we have a connection.”

“My surname’s just as unusual and long-winded as my first name. You don’t have to tell me Niktopolion Ugolnikov sounds like a joke name.”

Beatrisa’s eyes widen. “Might you be related to Captain Nestor Ugolnikov, a former Marine with a missing leg?”

“That’s my big brother, whom I haven’t been allowed to see since he came home from Iwo Jima. Our parents lied to our priest about Nestik becoming an atheist and violently rejecting Orthodoxy. Even after being excommunicated by all this city’s churches, my parents still insist they were in the right for disowning Nestik and lying about him.”

“Might you have any other brothers?” Kommuna asks. “We’ve got two first-year friends looking for guys to date. They’re at NYU’s women’s auxiliary.”

“I’ve got a freshman brother at Parsons. You’ll never guess his name either. Panteleimon, Panya for short. My sisters are Simforoza, Feofaniya, and Albina. Like I said, the oldest and youngest got the most normal names.”

“Why don’t we dance?” Beatrisa asks. “If you’re a good enough dancer, I’ll go out with you this weekend. Perhaps we can double with your brother and whichever girl he likes most.”

Niko smiles at her and steps onto the dancefloor.

6

Irina almost drops her cup of punch when she notices Rhonwen kissing a boy in a matador costume at the school Halloween dance. Rhonwen, dressed as Wonder Woman, returns to the refreshments table twenty minutes later, on the arm of her matador. She whispers to him before taking Irina by the arm and walking into the hall. Rhonwen pushes open a door under a barely-used stairwell, pulls on the lightbulb, and beckons to Irina.

Irina props her bow against a broken chair and has a seat on the beaten-up tan corduroy loveseat with Rhonwen. “Have you been drinking?”

“Not one drop. Where would I have gotten alcohol?”

“Then what were you doing with that guy? Did he force you?”

“I’ve been interested in Steve for awhile. This isn’t recent. Believe me, I very carefully thought about the situation from all angles before making my decision. I’d never do something like this lightly.”

Irina calls to mind images of Léa and Rhonwen exchanging little looks, touching one another for a split second before anyone could take note, and doing the intimate things she walked in on. “But you promised to stay faithful to Léa. If you lost interest in her, you should’ve been honest before starting to date guys again.”

“I truly loved Léa and thought we’d be together for always, but since she’s been away at Barnard, our lives have begun going in different directions. I suspect she’s cooled in her feelings too. Her letters aren’t those of a passionate lover, even considering the consequences of discovery. Léa’s building a new life, and it doesn’t include me, just as my life no longer includes her.”

“How long did you wait before giving up on your love? People who deeply love one another don’t just shrug and abandon the relationship after a short separation. My parents had several separations, and they never fell out of love, even during the times when they weren’t a couple.”

Rhonwen pulls her simple gold cross necklace out of her costume. “They had a much longer, stronger relationship. Maybe Léa and I were only meant to be together for a year and a half, in a very passionate burst, and then go our separate ways. Not all relationships are meant to last forever, no matter how deeply the couple loves each other.”

“But liking boys isn’t who you really are. No girl has a secret affair with another girl if she’s not a real Sapphist.”

Rhonwen shifts position on her pillow. “I don’t think I can handle a lifetime of secrecy and lies. My love for Léa was very real, and I really did believe we’d live together happily forever in a Boston marriage, but feelings are allowed to change. Call me a coward and sellout if you want, but my future no longer includes Léa.”

Irina removes her quiver and sets it on her armrest. “But if you truly love only women, you won’t be happy with any man. You’ll be faking your way through life and hurting someone who loves you. It’s not fair to date or marry anyone you don’t feel equally about.”

“I never stopped liking guys, though it’s difficult to readjust. It felt so right with Léa, but this feels right in a different way.” Rhonwen looks down at her necklace. “Even if Léa were a boy, we have a religious divide. Some couples might make it work, but I can’t see a way over all those stumbling-blocks. I never thought about the longterm repercussions of not only a Boston marriage, but an interfaith relationship.”

“Does Léa have any idea you feel this way? You can’t decide your relationship is over without informing her. She’ll keep making plans for your future if she assumes you’re still a couple.”

Rhonwen tucks her necklace back into her costume. “I don’t know how to tell her, and breaking up in a letter seems so cold. As cowardly as this is, I’d prefer she guess from fewer and fewer letters, with less and less personal content. There’s no easy, nice way to tell someone you’ve lost interest.”

“Saying nothing and putting it off sets the stage for an even harder confession and uglier fallout. I’d hate for a guy to tell me he lost interest and was seeing someone else. Don’t you think Léa would appreciate knowing sooner than later? Better to yank off a bandage than gently ease into it. Get that fear over with at once.”

“I know I should, but I don’t want to hurt Léa after how much and long I loved her. We had such a great relationship.” Rhonwen crosses her ankles.

Irina adjusts her derby and puts her quiver back on. “I ought to drive Sonya and Klepa home soon. We’ll discuss this more later.”

Rhonwen stands up. “This party will probably be over soon, and I need to be back in my dormitory by curfew.”

“School dances and parties are so boring.” Irina picks up her bow and opens the door. “I hope college parties are much more interesting.”

7

A large fortune cake is at the center of Andrey, Tomik, and Vilorik’s table, ringed by bowls, plates, and platters of Halloween-themed snacks and baked goods. Since Andrey has been so preoccupied with Katrin’s retrial, Tomik and Vilorik had to decorate the apartment and do almost all the food preparation. Every so often, the couples in attendance step onto the fire escape balcony or into one of the spare rooms to make out. Igor, dressed as a magician, feels queasy every time they do this.

“It’s such poor manners to excuse yourself to do that,” he whispers to Violetta. “Makeout parties are bad enough. Don’t they get enough every day?”

“Obviously not.” Violetta flaps the owl wings sewn to the back of her brown dress. “Since we’ve been on third base, I wish we could do that every single day. It was stupid to avoid anything beyond handholding for so long. Don’t you want to go all the way while we’re still together?”

“We’ll be together for the rest of our lives if I have anything to say about it. Why wouldn’t we be? You’re my unofficial fiancée. Before you know it, we’ll be man and wife.” Igor puts his hand on Violetta’s abdomen. “By next year at this time, Baby Koneva could be growing inside you.”

“If only I could have children.”

“You shouldn’t be so pessimistic before we’ve had a chance to try. Even if you are unable to have kids, I’ll still love you. We’ll have a great life together as just the two of us, or adopt a few kids and love them just as much as if we created them.”

Ilya, dressed in an Oktoberfest costume, walks up to the fortune cake and picks up a large ivory-handled knife. Milada, whose costume as always matches his, closes his hand over his as they cut the cake.

“Those charms are a load of premodern, superstitious nonsense,” Tomik scoffs when Luiza, dressed as a tavern maiden in green, hands him a plate. “People create self-fulfilling prophecies, or the charms just happen to coincide with things that would’ve happened regardless.”

“It’s a fun Halloween tradition.” Zhdana perches on his lap and slides her hand up his Viking robe. “Someone’s really hot and bothered. I’ll have to come home late tonight so I can relieve you of that uncomfortable congestion. A good Viking wench always satisfies her man.”

“We didn’t need those images!” Igor shouts.

Luiza hands Igor and Violetta plates. Igor pokes his fork into the cake at several places to make sure he doesn’t bite into the charm. Unlike other fortune cakes, this one doesn’t have charms baked in with ribbons.

“A ring!” Zoya exclaims when Igor holds his up. “You’re next to marry!”

Violetta looks at the floor as she holds up a rattle.

“Next to have a baby!” Zoya smiles at Violetta and Igor. “You can’t write that off as coincidence and superstition.”

“You gave us these charms on purpose,” Violetta says. “You know I’m not destined for marriage and motherhood.”

“It was completely random,” Vilorik says. “You shouldn’t believe in that bunk. Modern, rational, sensible people know fortunetelling isn’t real.”

Zoya turns pale when she beholds her charm, bells.

“You’re soon to be wed!” Zhdana says. “I wish I’d gotten a charm proclaiming an upcoming wedding. A shamrock just means luck is in my future.”

Andrey holds up a heart.

“Your love is a true love,” Luiza says. “Don’t you think it’s long past time you admitted you and Zosha ought to marry? No one goes steady for over two and a half years if they’re not in love. If you were going to break up to seek greener pastures, you would’ve done it a long time ago. The same goes for you, Letta. You might’ve convinced yourself this relationship can’t culminate in marriage, but your actions speak louder than words. We all know you love each other.”

“I’ll marry when I’m good and ready,” Andrey says. “Maybe Zosha and I do love each other, but that doesn’t mean we need to marry. She also needs an Orthodox husband.”

“Don’t rule anything out,” Milada says. “Just a few months ago, I let myself believe I couldn’t marry Ilyushka till he graduated, and now I’m the happy Mrs. Koneva. You’re only helpless against circumstances if you let yourself be held hostage to them instead of asserting yourself as master of your own destiny.”

WeWriWa—Irina’s latest Halloween costume

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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. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

To mark October, the best of all possible months, I’m once again sharing Halloween excerpts. This year, they’ll come from the currently-numbered Chapter 122, “Heterogenous Halloween,” of A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. It’s now 1951, and Lyuba and Ivan’s seventh child Irina, their oldest left at home, has once again designed her own costume.

Irina is now a high school senior, just turned eighteen a few days ago.

Irina rises early on the morning of Halloween and goes to her closet for the costume she thought up months ago. She pulls a short-sleeved, knee-length Lincoln green dress with four layers of pleats over her head, as always one of her own creations. Irina next slips matching gauntlets onto her arms and fastens the brown leather strap cords. She savors the feeling of the brown leather belt going around her waist. This is a man’s belt, not a feminized version meant only for show.

The next costume components are a smart Lincoln green derby with a black feather on the left side, skintight Lincoln green pantalettes, and dark brown knee-high boots. Irina opens her wardrobe and takes out items she knows her father will have a couple of hemorrhages over, a dark brown leather quiver with two dozen arrows. Irina fastens a black leather sheath around her waist and puts a miniature sword inside. With the aid of her full-length mirror, she straps a bow to her back. She picks up a Lincoln green loot bag before going downstairs.

The ten lines end here. The following lines finish this part of the scene:

Ivan almost slices his thumb off instead of a slice of ham when Irina saunters up to the breakfast table. “Irisha, you’ve got to stop wearing such scandalous Halloween costumes! What’s wrong with your sisters’ costumes?” He motions to Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a suffragist and Roman princess.

“It’s called having my own sense of style.” Irina pulls out her sword and slices an apple.

“Where did that come from!” Lyuba shrieks. “How did we not know you had that, or the archery equipment?”

“I got the bow and arrows in the sporting section of Golden Rule, and refused to pretend I was buying them for a boy. The sword came from Andryusha’s antiques store. There’s lots of neat stuff there.”

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