WeWriWa—Presents from the Lindmaas

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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.

This week will be my last Christmas-themed excerpt, in honor of the recent Orthodox Christmas. It 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.

Milena Kalvik, age 26, is the nanny of Tarmo and Meri Lindmaa. Their father Vahur, a widower about to turn 33, lost his wife in the final bombing of Tallinn, Estonia in 1944. Meri is particularly attached to Milena, never having known her birth mother. She was born in a posthumous C-section two months prematurely, and has a very unusual scar on her face from the rushed surgery done in the dark with only a knife.

Milena has had feelings for Vahur almost since they met, and adores his children, but doesn’t think he could ever reciprocate.

The Lindmaas are Taaraists, followers of Estonia’s original religion Taarausk (Taaraism), which is built around Nature worship. Taara is their supreme god.

Milena fetches the gifts she bought for Vahur, Meri, and Tarmo. Though they don’t celebrate Christmas, it felt wrong to not give them anything in return. For Tarmo and Meri, she bought James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and Anne Parrish’s The Story of Appleby Capple, respectively. Vahur’s present is a painted necktie with Bengal tigers.

“I hope you like our gifts,” Meri says. “Tarmo and I spent a lot of time making them. It was easier to do when you don’t live with us anymore.”

Milena unwraps a set of four coasters from Tarmo, painted with geometric patterns in a rainbow of colors, and a green, heart-shaped ceramic candy dish from Meri. Her heart skips a beat when she discovers a rough-cut pearl necklace from Vahur.

“You didn’t have to get me something so personal,” Milena protests.

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

“I’m only your children’s nanny. The other jewelry you’ve gotten me is unprecedented enough.”

“Why shouldn’t I honor such a special person with pearls?” Vahur smiles at her. “I’ve never seen you wearing pearls, and thought you deserved your own, in a unique style. So many other ladies wear basic, boring white pearls, but how many wear rough-cut pearls? It’s special, just like you.” Vahur takes it out of the box and fastens it around Milena’s neck. “Every lady deserves pearls from a man, and since no one else did it, I took it upon myself.”

“So you feel sorry for me because I’m an old maid?”

“Perish the thought. Taara’s keeping you single so long because your husband’s very special and worth waiting for. It takes more time to match some people. Not everyone is lucky enough to find a soulmate at all of sixteen or twenty. You’ll appreciate him more when he reveals himself.”

Milena’s heart flutters at that choice of phrase. She can’t let herself believe Vahur is speaking about himself, but the possibility exists. Her heart beats even faster when Vahur helps her on with her winter wraps and takes her arm.

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—The Lindmaas’ Halloween costumes

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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.

This year’s Halloween excerpts come from the currently-numbered Chapter 122, “Heterogenous Halloween,” of A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, in 1951. The chapter’s third section opens as sisters Mireena, Milena, and Ilme set out for trick-or-treating with their kids in Marble Hill, the only Manhattan neighborhood on the North American mainland.

Milena (Mireena’s identical twin) finally married her longtime crush Vahur in January and adopted his children from his first marriage. Her stepchildren Tarmo and Meri are ten and seven, and her nieces are both a year and a half old.

Mireena, Milena, and Ilme are married to three brothers, so their children are double-cousins. They also all live on the same street, right next door to one another. Marble Hill is the only place in Manhattan where detached houses are the norm.

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.

The nine lines end here. A few more follow.

“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.”

WeWriWa—War is over

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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. Because we just celebrated the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, this week’s snippet comes from near the end of Chapter 85, “Bittersweet Reunion,” of Journey Through a Dark Forest.

Here, in the penultimate section of the chapter, four of the Kalvik sisters, the two oldest Sheltsova sisters, and their friends Vasilisa and Inga joyously arrive at the big victory parade. Zhenya and Marina are the older sisters of Bogdana from my most recent series of snippets.

Mireena, Milena, Inga, Zhenya, Marina, Vasilisa, Ilme, and Viivela rush off the subway and stream into Times Square. The Great White Way is thronged with crowds, everyone cheering and screaming, as ticker tape rains down like manna from heaven. Already so much ticker tape has accumulated, they have to wade through it. In addition to ticker tape, the air is also full of playing cards, old telephone books, scrap paper, and bolts of cloth. Besides all the screaming and cheering, the air is also filled with car horns and boat whistles. Zhenya, Vasilisa, and Marina smile at the servicemen in the parade, and feel gnawing jealousy at the servicewomen.

“It’s a crying shame President Roosevelt couldn’t live to see this day.” Vasilisa gazes at a flag at half-staff. “This news would’ve made him so happy.”

Happy Halloween!

To mark my favouritest holiday, this year’s Halloween story comes from Chapter 45, “October Oblectations,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Most of the chapter is set over Halloween 1949.

Irina wakes up an hour earlier than usual on Halloween and goes right to her closet for the costume she designed over the last few weeks.  This year, she decided to dress as a flapper, in a teal knee-length velvet dress with shoulder straps and hundreds of silk tassels she spent countless hours sewing on.  Every time she moves, the entire dress moves with her.  The dress is very form-fitting, and shows off the still-developing but larger than average bustline and curvaceous hips she’s so proud of.  Her legs are covered by turquoise silk stockings held up by black satin garters with orange rosebuds.

 

Irina takes a deep breath, then ties her long hair back and severs it.  She sets the ponytail on her bureau and trims off the rough edges until her newly-bobbed hair has a smooth, uniform length.  None of the girls and women Irina knows still wear bobbed hair.  It’ll make her stand out even more, but the style she’s begun cultivating over the last few years has never been about blending in.  If she wanted to be just like everyone else, she’d have shoulder-length hair and dress like a miniature version of a housewife.  Irina has given herself the shortest bob she had the nerve for, stopping just short of being a shingle bob.  She doubts she’ll ever be brave enough to cut her hair as short as a man’s like Katrin, nor that she has the facial features and personality to pull it off.

After Irina covers her hair with a dark turquoise silk cloche hat she found in the St. Paul antiques shop Andrey frequents, she begins piling on the jewelry she picked up when she bought the hat.  A waist-length necklace of alternating black and red Bakelite beads; a three-tiered choker with purple pearls of all different sizes and shades; lapis lazuli French hook earrings in her first set of ear piercings; onyx French hook earrings in her second set; seven Bakelite bangle bracelets on each arm, in a rainbow of colors.  To avoid overcrowding and too much attention, she’s once again left off her costume rings.

Irina opens her top bureau drawer and pulls out a vial of kohl.  She slathers it liberally around her eyes with her mascara brush, then applies it to her eyelashes, just as thickly.  Irina combs her eyebrows across and down before smothering them in the darkest eyebrow pencil she has.  She coats her eyelids in dark teal eyeshadow.  Though she normally prefers unconventional colors for lipstick, today she applies very dark red.  Flappers never wore purple, dark blue, black, or dark green lipstick.  She painted her nails deep red last night, so they’d be dry in time.

Finally, Irina steps into evergreen leather pumps with embossed Sphinxes and spritzes herself with Shalimar.  She wishes Vadim were here to see her, but she could arrange for him to see pictures of her costume the next time their families get together.  Irina smiles as she pulls her new shawl around herself, imagining Vadim putting it on her when she’s old enough for him.  If she’s lucky, the ladies will stay away from him on account of his red hair, as they overwhelmingly stayed away from Yuriy, and he’ll be hers, all hers, once their age difference has levelled out.

Ivan almost drops the teapot when Irina comes to the breakfast table, while Lyuba crosses herself.  Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a pirate and Renaissance girl, look at her in admiration.

“This costume is at least as good as last year’s,” Sonyechka says.

“Irisha, please tell us that’s a wig,” Ivan stutters. “Surely you wouldn’t disrespect us by cutting your hair in secret.  Girls are supposed to have long hair.  Only adult women should have bobbed hair.”

“It’s almost 1950, Papa.” Irina puts scrambled eggs on her plate. “Hairstyles change.  I look much more adult now, and more distinctive.”

“You just turned sixteen!  You’re not supposed to look adult!  That makeup is even worse.  You’re only allowed to paint your face on special occasions.”

“Halloween’s a special occasion.  I never dress like this on regular school days.”

“Only prostitutes and other disreputable women wear makeup, particularly lipstick.  I grudgingly accept Tanya wearing it, but she never cakes on nearly that much.”

“Tanya isn’t a prostitute or disreputable,” Lyuba chides him. “She’s a respectable married woman having her fifth child.  Would Kolya have wanted her as his wife and the mother of his children if she were a fallen woman like I used to be?”

“What’s a fallen woman?” Tamara asks.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Did you just say Tanya’s having a fifth child?” Ivan asks. “When did this happen?”

Lyuba swirls her spoon in her tea. “She told me and Liza recently.  She and Kolya have known for awhile, but kept it secret.  Kolya wants another boy, after waiting so long for Vova.”

“Why are so many men obsessed with having boys?” Sonyechka asks. “Even modern men like Kolya act like having a boy is the greatest achievement ever.”

“It’s how history unfolded.  A lot of factors contributed to it, and these attitudes went unchecked and accepted for centuries.  By the time women and some enlightened men began questioning them, they were too deeply-entrenched to overturn overnight.”

“I wish I could study women’s history when I’m at university.”

“For now, all we want you to do is earn good marks in fifth grade,” Ivan says. “The sooner you finish breakfast, the sooner you can walk to school.”

“Don’t you want nice, respectable boys to notice you, Irisha?” Lyuba begs. “Even I never painted my face when I was a fallen woman.”

“Are you sure you can’t tell me what that means, so I can make sure I never become one?” Tamara asks. “I want everyone to like me, and want to find a nice husband and have a family when I’m old enough.”

Lyuba fondly smiles at her baby. “It’s a very grownup concept you’ll never have to worry about.  You’re being raised to love yourself, and have a wonderful father who treats his wife and daughters like diamonds.  Perhaps you’ll find your future husband among our family friends.  You’re just the right age for Petya’s Adam and Katrin’s Marek, and might not have to bother with outsiders.”

Ivan violently grimaces. “Don’t remind me of that.  I don’t want that crazy woman sharing blood with me.  It’d be an honor to share blood with Petya, but I’d be sick to my stomach if that crazy Katrin’s final child married our final child.”

“Oh, take it easy.  Toma’s more than ten years away from marriage age.  I was just thinking out loud.”

Irina takes her little sisters’ hands after they finish breakfast.  During the short walk to their respective schools, they all daydream about moving to the Twin Cities and then going to New York for university.  People in big cities are much more accepting of differences, instead of being hayseeds who lash out at anything outside their tiny bubble of experience.

4

Bogdana has been prevailed upon to put on a costume for Halloween and join Fyodora in the main house, though she’s refused to wear the type of fun, revealing costume she would’ve worn in years past.  She’s turned a baggy black sarafan as the basis for a nun’s habit, and made a veil and collar with black and white fabrics from Fyodora’s cast-off pile.  A prayer rope and the largest cross she could find hang around her neck.  Bogdana’s hemline drags all the way to the floor, covering the black flats she usually wears on Sundays.

Fyodora looks at the clock when the doorbell rings. “That couldn’t be trick-or-treaters already, could it?  It’s only four.  I’m not taking Ramona and Olik till six.”

“Maybe it’s Gilbert coming to play with me,” Oliver says hopefully, adjusting his firefighter hat. “He’s dressed like a policeman.”

Fyodora smiles when she gets the door. “Bogusya, come take a look at our first little trick-or-treater!”

Bogdana stands up and slowly ambulates over.  There stands Achilles, dressed as a bullfighter and holding a bouquet of orange, dark red, and white roses.  Only as an afterthought does Bogdana notice him holding hands with a tiny jack-o-lantern with big brown eyes.

“Happy Halloween.” Achilles extends the roses. “You deserve fresh flowers to make you happy.  I made them Halloween-colored, so they’d really stand out.”

“Thank you.” Bogdana takes the roses.

“I’ll put them in water for you,” Fyodora says. “Mr. Medved, would you like to introduce your companion?”

Achilles gently nudges her forward, smiling the biggest smile Bogdana’s ever seen him use. “What do you say, Klarika?”

“Trick-or-treat,” she says in a voice as tiny as she is, holding out an orange cloth bag with yellow jack-o-lantern cut-outs sewn on.

Bogdana puts an Almond Joy bar in her bag, then adds a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  The poor girl has no mother, and deserves extra sweets from somewhere.

“What do you say now, Klarika?” Achilles asks.  When Klara doesn’t say anything, he kneels and whispers in her ear.

“Thank you.”

“Can you tell the nice lady that in another way?” He whispers to her again.

“Hvala.”

“Is that Slovenian?” Bogdana asks.

Achilles nods. “Klara’s eighteen months old now, and knows about seventy words in both English and Slovenian.  Being Klari’s Očka is the greatest joy of my life.  She’s the reason I wake up every morning and work so hard in med school.  It would’ve been easier to raise a son as a single father, but God wanted me to be the father of a little girl more than a little boy.  She’s Sabina’s eternity.  If you ever have a child, you’ll know the feeling of your heart walking around outside your body.” His jaw clenches. “Klari was in the apartment when my Sabina was attacked, but praise Christ, they never put their hands or anything else on her.  Sabina reassured me they never touched Klari.  When Sabina did what she did, Klari was with my sister Vivienne, so she didn’t have to watch her mother dying or go a week without milk.” His eyes grow soft. “I don’t want to imagine what would’ve happened had Klari been there.  The cops might’ve found her dead in her crib, and I’d have nothing left to remind me of the only woman I ever loved.”

Klara squeals as Peppermint darts into the room. “Mucka!”

“Yes, the nice lady has a kitty.” Achilles smiles another big smile at Klara. “This is a mačka, not a mucka.  Peppermint is an adult, not a baby.”

“Would you care to stay to supper?” Fyodora asks. “I’m taking my children out for trick-or-treating at six, and expect to be home by eight.  Ramona will be asleep in her stroller most of the time, but I can’t help showing her off in her cute little costume.  She’s a strawberry.”

“I can’t impose on your family.  I brought Klari to her grandparents and a few other friends’ and relatives’ homes back in Manhattan, and came here to check on Bogusya.  Klari was too young to trick-or-treat last year, and could only handle about twenty houses in a short range this year.  By the time she’s in first grade, she’ll be able to handle a normal Halloween night.”

“Please, I insist.  Did you have plans for a party?”

“Med students and single fathers don’t have time for social lives, I’m afraid.  I planned to go right home after coming here.  Klari’s bedtime is seven-thirty.”

“She can sleep on the sofa, and on the way home.  I’ve wanted you to come for a meal since I met you.  You’ll only be with my husband and Bogusya this time, but next time, my children and I will be there too.”

“Sure, if you absolutely insist.” Achilles picks Klara up. “Your little feet must be tired.  The nice lady and her aunt will give us a tour of this beautiful house, the guesthouse, and the garage, and then you’ll have a nice supper and go to bed.”

“Isn’t he a good father?” Fyodora whispers to Bogdana in Russian. “You always want to find a man who treats the women and girls in his life like diamonds.”

“I’m ruined,” Bogdana says. “Even if I weren’t, Achilles is far too old for me, and he’s a widower with a child.”

“That shouldn’t matter if he’s the right man.  That cute little girl needs a mother, and you need someone to love you just as much as he loves her, in the way only an adult man and woman can love one another.  I’d be shocked if Achilles doesn’t have feelings for you.  He’s probably having a hard time figuring out how to express these feelings given your complicated situations, but the way he acts towards you paints the picture of someone who really cares for you.  I also doubt a caring single father would introduce his child to just anyone.”

Bogdana hurries to catch up with Achilles and Klara.  She lets Fyodora do the talking during the tour, mostly thinking of the excuse she can use to get back in the clinic as soon as possible.  During the brief stop in the largest bathroom, a smile breaks over her face.  She can use a harsh soap that gives her a rash.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

5

Milena holds Meri’s hand tightly as they start on the walk through Marble Hill.  For the Lindmaas’ first Halloween, Milena made Meri a fairy costume with a gauzy pink dress and pink, mint, baby blue, and pale orange wings.  For Tarmo, she made a monkey costume, and a yellow trick-or-treating bag with appliquéd bananas.

“People in Sweden don’t do this,” Tarmo says as they approach the first house. “No one in Estonia does it either.”

“It’s a very American, British, and Canadian custom,” Milena says. “They don’t call it trick-or-treating in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but they have a very similar concept.  Who wouldn’t want the fun of dressing up and getting free candy?”

Tarmo rings the bell, and he and Meri repeat the greeting Milena taught them.  The woman who answers the door gives them each a 5th Avenue bar and smiles back at Milena.  People who don’t know her assume she’s these children’s mother, and she’s not eager to reveal the truth.  If it were possible for her to marry Vahur and adopt his children, she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“Won’t you miss going to your grownup party?” Meri asks as they walk to the next house.

“Helping you is more important than a party.  With you, I can pretend I have real children, whereas at a party, I’d be constantly reminded I failed to find a husband and have children.  Only pathetic women are spinsters at my age.”

“You’d have a husband if you married Isa,” Tarmo says. “You’d be a great new ema, though I’ll never forget my first ema.  I barely remember her, but I have a few fuzzy memories.  Isa’s being stupid when he says Taara didn’t want me and Meri to have an ema.  He’s too young to not have a new wife.  Old men who lose their wives are supposed to never remarry, not young men.  I’d find a new wife if I lost my old one in my twenties.”

“Your isa’s just too old for me, and I can’t marry or date anyone who’s already been married and had kids.  He’s also made it clear he doesn’t want to remarry.  You should respect his feelings, instead of forcing him to change his mind.  I don’t mind acting like a surrogate ema.”

Isa’s only thirty-one, and you’re twenty-five.  I didn’t think that was a huge age difference for adults.  Isa always says time passes much faster for adults, and that only kids think a year is a huge amount of time.  You and Isa are both grownups, and you’re not a new grownup.  I think Isa would like you as a wife.”

Milena holds her tongue as they ring the next bell.  Every night, she thinks impure thoughts about Vahur undressing and sleeping on the same floor of the house, imagining what he looks like, what it’d feel like to do intimate things with him.  The first time she’s fallen in love, it had to be with a widower who’s over six and a half years older and has two children.  If only the war hadn’t interfered, she might’ve been married and a mother by now.  Not everyone’s life is meant to unfold on the same timetable, but it’s never pleasant to be reminded one isn’t in the same place in life as most of one’s peers.

6

This year, instead of going to the NYU Halloween party up in University Heights, Igor and Ilya have decided to go to the private party Andrey’s hosting in his apartment.  While it’s not as large or action-packed, nothing beats the shorter commute on a weekday night.

Igor pulls his woolen, ankle-length Ionic chiton and heavy himation tighter around himself as he gets out of the Ford to pick up Luiza and Susanna, thankful for his long woolen undergarments.  Ancient Greek clothing wasn’t made for late October in New York.  Ilya and Milada are dressed much more warmly, as a pair of Harlequin clowns.  The makeup on their faces adds an additional layer of warmth.

“Can you warn us when you get back this time?” Ilya asks from the backseat.

“Would you really unglue yourselves from each other if you did know I was coming back?  You’re always too distracted to notice anything or anyone else.”

Ilya looks away. “If you ever have a girlfriend, you’ll feel the same way.  You’re so overdue to have a date with someone, anyone.”

“Violetta will be mine eventually.  I just have to be patient.”

“What if she never wants to date you?” Milada asks.

“I accept that tragic possibility, but I’ve got over two and a half years left to make my case.  If I graduate still single, I’ll take it as a sign from God I’m meant to marry someone else, not the first girl I ever loved.” Igor hops up the Eristovs’ stoop and rings the bell.

“You don’t have to ring or knock,” Matryona says when she answers the door. “Family never needs to announce themselves.  You’re allowed to come over anytime you want to.  In fact, you still haven’t taken up my offer to share a Sunday meal.  I don’t see you often enough.”

Luiza adjusts her brown fedora. “You should come visit, Gorik.  Viktor’s always whining for an older guy to do things with.”

“I hate being so outnumbered,” Viktor grumbles. “I never asked to be born into a family with almost no men.”

“It’s teaching you compassion and understanding for the other half of the species,” Matryona says. “Men who grow up with almost no women and girls often aren’t very sensitive towards us.  If your sisters are smart, they’ll marry men with more sisters than brothers.” She looks disapprovingly at Luiza. “Those clothes are too mannish, even for a costume.  I want you to send the right impression.”

“What else is a lady gangster supposed to wear?” Luiza asks. “I’m not cross-dressing.  Everyone knows I’m not a man.”

“I wish you’d chosen something more feminine, like Susya’s butterfly, but there’s no use arguing now.  The costume already exists.” Matryona gives the side-eye to the machine gun in Luiza’s holster. “Please tell me that’s a toy.”

“It’s a real gun, but not loaded.  I’m not stupid.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Legal channels.” Luiza twists a lock of hair around her finger. “Susya and I will be late if you keep interrogating us.  We’ll be home by eleven.”

Luiza darts outside and claps her hands after Igor opens the car.  When Ilya and Milada continue kissing, Luiza leans into the car and claps again.  The lovebirds guiltily separate and look straight ahead as Susanna gets into the backseat, gathering in the voluminous Monarch butterfly fabric sewn onto the back and over the shoulders of her orange, yellow, and black strapless evening gown. Luiza takes the passenger seat.

The moment Igor begins driving, Luiza unbuttons her long brown skirt and maneuvers it off over the course of several blocks.  Underneath, wide-leg tweed trousers emerge.

“My folks have no idea I bought pants,” Luiza says as she lets the skirt fall off the remaining inches of her legs. “Why should I pair suspenders, a tie, and a man’s fedora and dress shirt with a stupid skirt?  A few women gangsters were very brave and shunned dresses.”

“Are Zosha and Danka already there?” Susanna asks. “I wish I could rip my wings off my shoulders and properly position them to only cover my back, but I’d never get away with that.  My folks wouldn’t let me leave the house again if they discovered I wore a strapless dress in public, and at a private mixed party.”

“They got their own ride.” Igor refrains from honking at a crowd of trick-or-treaters walking in the road.

“That ikon Letta got you must really be magical,” Luiza says. “Your mood has improved dramatically over the last few days.”

“My mood will improve most when Letta becomes my girlfriend.”

“That might never happen.  She still shows no signs of wanting to date anyone.  I hope you find a date at this party.  Before long, no self-respecting woman will want to date you if you’re so completely inexperienced.  You shouldn’t just be learning how to kiss at twenty.  I’ve heard people who don’t date at a normal age become overly attached to their first partners, and have a hard time accepting the end of that relationship.  Your college relationships should be all about fun and getting your feet wet, not lining up a wife.”

“You can have fun while seriously dating,” Ilya objects. “Why should Mila and I break up when we like each other so much?  Even if you start out only wanting fun, you can’t predict if you’ll get real feelings for someone.  I hope Andryusha and Zosha rethink their plans to break up after an arbitrary date, just to try out more people.”

“That’s entirely their business,” Susanna says. “Modern people aren’t contractually bound to marry their first and only partner.  I can’t believe just kissing someone before marriage was considered scandalous in our parents’ generation.  I’d never rush into engagement or marriage all because someone caught me kissing a guy.  Even intimacy shouldn’t be limited to one’s future spouse, though I don’t intend to become the Great Whore of Babylon.  If I’m very attracted to a man, and trust his intentions, why not cross the point of no return?”

Igor almost drives onto the sidewalk. “Respectable people never do that with people they don’t intend to marry.  What if you had a child?”

“I’d go to the same doctor Bogusya saw.  Problem solved.”

Igor drives in silence the rest of the way to the Lower East Side.  He finds a parking spot as close to the restaurant as possible, and is walking towards the fire escape when he sees Zoya, Zhdana, Violetta, and Maja approaching.  Zoya wears an ordinary red blouse with a white scoop-neck collar, knee-length black skirt, and brown boots, while Zhdana is dressed as a cowgirl with a gun on each hip and an above-knee skirt Igor supposes she changed into after leaving the house.

Violetta wears a long black gown festooned with silver bats; bicep-high black gloves; a black eye mask; black shoes with small silver bats; black hair flowers; French hook bat earrings; silver bat bangle bracelets; an onyx bat necklace displayed against her uncharacteristically exposed collarbone; and a large, rectangular piece of sheer fabric hanging off the back of her dress.

Maja wears a white blouse; a red vest with black beading and embroidery on both sides; a green calf-length skirt with a red poppy motif, covered by a white apron with intricate lace patterns; a coral necklace; lace-up black boots; and a crown of red poppies.

“No costume this year, Zosha?” Igor calls.

“This is very much a costume.  It matches Andryusha’s.  When you go upstairs, you’ll see.”

“My costume is traditional Polish ludowy outfit for girls in Kraków,” Maja says.

“She means ‘folk.‘” Violetta lifts the fabric sewn to her back, extending her arms as far up as they’ll go. “I liked last year’s spider costume more, but I can’t reuse a costume that soon.  Bats symbolize rebirth, the ability to see through illusions to the heart of the matter, intuition, visions, dreams, journeying, and long life.  Inga told me about some of that symbolism when she showed me the bat necklace Yuriy got her for her birthday, and I researched the rest.  It’s a shame so many Westerners fear or hate creatures traditionally considered good luck in other cultures, like spiders, bats, goblins, and dragons.”

“I don’t want to go up the fire escape,” Susanna says. “We should show off our costumes to as many people as possible.  I doubt any of our relatives besides Dyadya Seva are there, and he’d never tattle about Lucha wearing pants and Danka’s short skirt.”

Igor follows the others into the restaurant, dragging at the back of the line, behind Maja and Violetta.  Everyone in the restaurant stops to stare at the nine costumed people, particularly Susanna, who walks and flaps her butterfly wings very seductively.  Luiza and Zhdana point their guns around the room, laughing, while many patrons scream and duck under their tables.

“They’re not loaded,” Igor hastens to explain.

Pozhaluysta, go upstairs without bothering my customers further,” Vsevolod begs. “I won’t tell anyone about Zhdana and Luiza’s unladylike costumes and shocking attempt at dark humor, or Susanna’s grotesque display.  That’s not how any of them will land respectable husbands.”

“We’re not in the market for husbands,” Susanna retorts. “We only want fun.”

“You’re working on a holiday, Captain?” Igor asks Nestor. “I hope you didn’t feel kicked out of your own home because of Andryusha’s party.”

Nestor continues wiping off a table. “I can’t crash a college party.  As soon as my shift ends, I’m heading to Ustya’s party.  What does a guy my age want with a bunch of students?  Andrey and I have our own lives, and never impose on the other.”

Igor hurries up the stairs, cringing in shame for his cousins still putting on a show for the patrons.  The last person to enter the apartment is Susanna, her body and wings undulating like a burlesque dancer.

Andrey is dressed in blue pants, a navy blue shirt with a wide red collar and golden buttons, and a white sailor’s cap, a pipe clenched between his teeth.  When Igor sees an anchor painted on each arm, it dawns on him that Andrey is Popeye and Zoya is Olive Oyl.

Andrey has decorated the apartment with die-cut skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches, cauldrons, bats, spiders, ravens, and owls; Halloween postcards; orange and black streamers; strings of skull and jack-o-lantern lights; black and orange balloons; overflowing candy containers shaped like skulls and jack-o-lanterns; and black cat, jack-o-lantern, skull, and devil lanterns.  The table is set with pumpkin pie; butternut squash soup; cookies shaped and frosted like ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, witches, black cats, cauldrons, skeletons, and Vampyre faces; apple cider with cinnamon sticks; corn on the cob; stuffed squash; a bowl of green punch with red gummi worms floating in it; and a fortune cake.  Almost all the food looks storebought.

“The rest of the guests should be here soon,” Andrey says. “You can start eating and playing games anytime.” He motions around the living room, where he’s set up a Ouija board; a large metal tub with apples; walnut boats; several board games; Pin the Tail on the Donkey; and several fortunetelling games.

Violetta eases into a cushioned chair at the far end of the room, by a smaller table with non-Halloween snacks like potato chips and pretzels.  She looks around at the decorations, games, and festival food, a sad look in her eyes, before taking a few pretzels.

“Not going to participate in this party either?” Igor asks.

Violetta shakes her head. “Having fun is for other people, normal people.  I came because so many of my friends did, and since it’s not on-campus and full of strangers.  Less people will bother me about being a wallflower.”

“You’re not tempted by anything?”

“Of course, but I have to think of nobler things than hedonism.  Nothing’s stopping you from participating.  Go have fun, and enjoy the evening.”

Igor shakes his head and goes to bob for apples.  He briefly considers sitting by Violetta the entire evening, but doesn’t want to unsettle her with too much proximity.  It’s awkward enough being around her after revealing his unrequited feelings.  But hope springs eternal, and there’s always next Halloween.

7

As soon as Nestor’s shift ends, he darts into the restroom to change into his costume.  He doesn’t want to disturb Andrey’s party, even if it’s his apartment too.  No one wants to be the awkward third wheel at a party one wasn’t invited to, particularly when there’s a significant age difference between oneself and all the guests.

Nestor has never properly celebrated Halloween, owing to how traditional and old-world his parents are, and so has gone all out on a pirate costume.  He pairs a white dress shirt with a brown leather vest, red-and-black-striped pants, brown boots, a red peaked cap, and the Marine sword his chaplain bought him a few Christmases ago.

As always, his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor pendant hangs proudly around his neck, though he tucks his baptismal cross inside his shirt.  Pirates aren’t supposed to be religious, and Nestor only wears that cross out of a mixture of force of habit and superstition.  He’ll never have the kind of pure, sincere, unquestioning faith someone like Father Timofey has.

Nestor puts his work clothes into his duffelbag and gives it to Vsevolod for safekeeping, then heads out to catch a bus to Hamilton Heights.  The party is at Dragomir and Vasilisa’s apartment, since they have the most space by far.  On the ride uptown, Nestor daydreams about what he’d like to do with Yustina if she were his bride, and not repelled at the thought of marrying an amputee.  She might enjoy kissing him now, but she could never tolerate the sight of him in all his mutilated glory.  Briefly seeing his uncovered stump on Vancouver Island was bad enough, but Yustina didn’t have to see all of it.  Even if they only ever have relations in complete darkness, there aren’t any positions to avoid skin-to-skin contact with that.  Yustina would feel what she couldn’t see.

Nestor is grateful for the lift which presents itself.  The party’s only on the third of ten floors, but he never takes stairs if he can avoid it.  He’s newly-glad he vetoed Artur’s suggestion to wear an old-fashioned pegleg for this one night.  Nestor has only ever had experience walking on his own, modern prosthesis, and doesn’t want to risk falling flat on his face.  It was bad enough when his leg came loose and fell off in St. Nicholas Park.

Yustina, dressed in a teal silk dress with peacock-patterned fabric sewn to her back, swings the door open when he rings the bell.  She gives him a big smile and wraps her arms around him.

“Come have a seat, golubchik.  No one expects you to stand and walk the entire evening.  I’ll bring all the food and drinks to you.” She looks him up and down, still smiling. “Had I known you were a pirate, I would’ve been a lady pirate, but couples shouldn’t have to match their costumes all the time.  Independence is always good.” Yustina squeezes his hand. “Taavi and Sulev’s English has become rather good, but they don’t understand everything yet.  Mira and Ilme will have to translate some things for them, but it shouldn’t slow anyone down.”

Nestor hobbles into the living room and sinks onto the brown leather davenport.  In addition to the pumpkin welcome mat outside the front door, his hosts have decorated their home with cobwebs; rubber spiders and rats; black and orange streamers and balloons; strings of orange lights; three-dimensional jack-o-lanterns, black cats, owls, and bats made of tissue; ghost garlands; red, orange, and yellow roses in ceramic jack-o-lanterns and cauldrons; cut-out spiders, bats, skeletons, witches, and ravens; and an entire wall of Halloween postcards.  The floor and tables are littered with classic Halloween games, while Kuzma’s old bedroom has been turned into a miniature haunted house with eerie sound effects records playing.

The kitchen table boasts orange and black macarons with red filling; pumpkin poundcake, bread, cheesecake and soup; candied apples; caramel-drizzled popcorn mixed with roasted peanuts and M&Ms; cookies shaped and decorated like autumn leaves, ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, ghouls, bats, spiders, and tombstones; cupcakes with thick, high green and orange frosting; chocolate sandwich cookies with orange and yellow filling; roasted pumpkin seeds; red Jell-O with green gummi worms inside; a spider cake; hard-boiled eggs dyed green, orange, yellow, black, and red; large bowls of blood orange mocktail and hot apple cider; apple cider doughnuts; a cheeseball shaped into a pumpkin, with homemade bone-shaped crackers; stuffed orange and yellow peppers with jack-o-lantern faces; a chocolate cake with spiderweb icing; green macaroni and cheese; orange potatoes with olives for eyes; beet salad; and a fortune cake.

Most of the couples have matching costumes.  Dragomir and Vasilisa are a Medieval prince and princess; Yulian and Marina are Frankenstein’s monster and his bride; Ilme and Taavi are a witch and warlock; and Mireena and Sulev are an Egyptian princess and pharaoh.  Only Zhenya and Kuzma don’t match, as a mummy and Robin Hood.  True to form, Zhenya wears a white lace dress that barely meets the fingertip rule, with barely anything covered by solid fabric; a see-through lace shawl; thigh-high white fishnets held up by white satin garters; white shoes that are barely more than a few thin leather straps; waist-length pearls; and a pearl and diamond headband tapering into the shape of a rose on each side of her head, with egret feathers attached.  Nestor wonders where she got the glittery silver eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow pencil, and lipstick.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets him. “Most of the decorating, cooking, and baking are the work of my princess, but I did a few things.  I got just the type of old-fashioned little wifey I wanted.” He smiles beatifically at Vasilisa. “She made these Medieval costumes by hand too.  I’ll never have to worry she’s unhappy as a housewife after she has the baby and can’t work anymore.”

“Better her than me,” Zhenya says. “I’d be bored stiff if I had nothing better to do with my time than boil diapers, mend socks, cook, wash floors, and knit.  Marusya and I will be the most sophisticated housewives and young mothers in the entire five boroughs.”

“Aren’t you glad we switched dames, Drashka?” Kuzma asks.

“Hey, Vasilisa’s a lady, not a dame,” Dragomir protests. “I never would’ve married a dame.  How could a princess be anything but a lady?”

“My point exactly.” Kuzma gooses Zhenya, who laughs and grabs his crotch in response.

Nestor looks away in horror.  Even if Zhenya and Kuzma are newlyweds, there’s no reason to behave so wantonly with company.  He doubts Zhenya will settle down once she’s a mother.  Still, he’d love for Yustina to touch him like that, and be able to touch her so personally.  If Yustina makes it to three months without losing interest or becoming repelled, he’ll take her up on her tempting offer of petting.

“Why don’t we invite Mila?” Mireena asks. “She must be home from trick-or-treating by now, and shouldn’t have to sit alone or only keep company with kids on such a fun holiday.  Vahur can’t object to her joining us.”

“Someone has to watch Vahur’s children,” Taavi objects. “I’m sure he’s home by now, but he can’t do everything by himself.  He might claim he’s both parents in one, but there’s a reason he hired Mila as a nanny.”

Zhenya smirks. “Oh, there’s a reason alright.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes his intentions known by next year at this time, if not much sooner.  No handsome man invites an attractive single woman to live in his home without any ulterior motive.  Nanny, my eye.”

Taavi and Sulev shake their heads after Mireena translates.

“How could Vahur think of Mila in that way?” Sulev asks in horror. “They’re almost seven years apart, and Vahur’s a lesk with two children!  He never wants to remarry, but if he did, he’d only choose another lesk.”

“It’s not like he’s forty or she’s fifteen,” Zhenya says. “Why should a young widower with kids feel obligated to only date widows who also have kids?  It’s hardly unheard-of for a second wife to be a never-married younger woman.  Vahur’s kids love Mila, so they’ll easily accept her as their stepmother.”

“Fancy you objecting to Vahur being almost seven years older than Mila when Mira’s four years your elder,” Marina chimes in. “Are age differences suddenly too taboo after a certain threshold?”

“No, but that’s a big age difference at their ages,” Sulev says. “They’re not in the same place in life.”

“Just about everyone would say a twenty-four-year-old woman has nothing in common with a twenty-year-old man, yet you eagerly asked Mira out and married her at those ages.  A lot of famous couples have much greater age differences, like Charlie Chaplin and his latest wife.”

Sulev and Taavi continued shaking their heads as Ilme places the call.

***

Milena leaves Tarmo and Meri to continue counting their candy when the phone rings.  She avoids looking at Vahur on the living room davenport, boiling with desire for him.

“Hello?”

“Mila, it’s me, Ilme.  We wanted to invite you to our Halloween party.  Your babysitting duties should be over for the night, and Vahur can’t object to you joining us.”

“With what costume!  Meri also expects me to put her to bed, and to be there in case she has a nightmare and needs to crawl into my bed.”

“It’s one night, not an entire day.  How could Vahur object to this?  We all expect to see you within the hour.”

Milena steels herself after she hangs up. “Vahur, I hate to disturb you, but I’ve been invited to our siblings’ Halloween party.  I told Ilme my priority is taking care of your children.”

“Sure you can go.” Vahur stands up. “I’ll go with you.  Tarmo, do you mind watching Merike for a few hours?  I trust you won’t open the door to strangers or tell people on the phone you’re home alone.”

Tarmo’s face lights up. “I can stay home alone?  No grownups?”

“You’re a big boy, almost nine.  Of course I trust you.  Mila and I are going to a Halloween party for adults.  I hope you’re not too jealous.”

“We already had Halloween fun.  I’d be bored at a party with grownups.”

“Make your costumes match,” Meri says. “I want strangers who see you to think you’re a real couple.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I can’t have another wife?” Vahur asks gently. “Men and women are allowed to be just friends.  Women fought long and hard for equal participation in public life, even for something as seemingly little as this.”

Milena runs into her room and changes into a floor-length, multi-tiered calico skirt and a patchwork calico blouse.  She ties her hair up under a red silk scarf and adds a ruby costume ring, a multicolored glass bead necklace, French hook emerald earrings, and an onyx headband.  When she returns to the living room, she sees Vahur in a traditional Estonian costume, a billowy line shirt, dark blue trousers ending a bit below the knees, a scarlet vest with black beading; an intricately woven belt; long white stockings; black, low boots; and a black top hat.

“Behave yourselves while I’m gone,” Vahur calls. “I expect both of you to be in bed by nine, and to not eat too much candy.”

Meri pets Lumi as she waves goodbye.

“I hope you’re not too annoyed,” Milena says as they walk towards the subway station. “You didn’t expect to give up your night to go to a couples’ party.  We’ll be the only single people there.”

“I don’t mind getting out every so often.  I’m not that old yet.  The last thing I want is to become a preternaturally old man with no social life.”

Milena avoids eye contact during the journey to Hamilton Heights, constantly cursing herself for thinking impure thoughts about Vahur.  She’s relieved women have no dead giveaway of their arousal as men do.  If that were the case, her lust would’ve been obvious months ago, and Vahur would want nothing further to do with her.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets them. “Come right in and make yourselves at home.  My princess made a lot of good food and put together so many great decorations and games.”

Vahur gazes at the feast upon the table, then the spooky décor. “I wish I had a princess for a wife, in spite of my Socialist beliefs.  Once Mila and her sisters move out, I’ll be back to living like a tragic widower.  I can’t cook, clean, or decorate that well.”

“Happiness can be yours for the taking, if you go out there and grab it,” Yustina calls. “Nestik would still be sad and lonely if I hadn’t told him what’s what and made the first move.  Don’t let sadness in your past determine the entire course of your future.” She leans against Nestor. “Why not take a slice of fortune cake and play the fortunetelling games?”

“If you walk out the door backwards at night, pick grass, and put it under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future spouse,” Zhenya says. “Your religion believes in spirits and prophecy.”

Vahur accepts a plate of fortune cake from Vasilisa, and Milena takes a plate from Ilme.  Milena eats her cake carefully, guarding against biting the charm, while Vahur immediately pulls out the baked-in ribbon and finds a moon.

“Opportunity,” Vasilisa translates. “What’s yours, Mila?”

Milena holds up an anchor.

“A life of stability.”

“As what, a childless old maid?”

“Stability’s nothing to sneeze at,” Vasilisa says. “If you’re not stable on your own, a husband won’t magically change you.”

“But having a husband’s even better.” Marina rubs Yulian’s shoulders. “You’re not frightfully old yet.  He could be just around the corner.”

“The veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight,” Ilme says. “Whatever you wish for might come true, even if it’s not right away, and you’re more likely to dream of the future.”

Milena moves to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a haunted pumpkin patch after finishing her cake.  She represses the urge to smile when Vahur joins her.  Whatever wishes she makes and dreams she has, Vahur will always be a widower with children, and she’ll be an old maid, but hoping never hurts.  Amid all the unpleasantness of life, it’s nice to have a few oblectations thrown her way every so often.

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