This is one of a batch of 20 posts I put together on 24 June 2012 and shuttled into my drafts folder for future installments of the now-permanently-cancelled hop Sweet Saturday Samples. It’s slightly different from the published version in The Twelfth Time, including regarding the absence of the pedantic accent marks.
So begins Naina, Katya, and Karla’s journey away from Mrs. Brezhneva’s orphanage, where they’ve lived since February 1920. When I was pulling together the various storylines for the sequel in my head over a decade ago, the unexpected turn of events was envisioned a little bit differently. The basic element that remains is the image of little Karla lost in the snow.
The last time Naína, Kátya, and Kárla boarded a train, it was to take them to an orphanage. Today, January 5, 1926, is the first day of the rest of their lives, the first time they’ll be taking a train bringing them one step closer towards freedom. After being seen off at the depot by Mrs. Brézhneva and a delegation consisting of Ínna, Alína, Ohanna, Izabella and her mother, Irína, and Sarah, the three of them check their luggage and board a train heading towards Cherkasi, an old Ukrainian city on the right bank of the Dnipro River. When they reach Cherkasi, the plan is to get another train going to Odessa.
Kárla wishes they had time to stay and take in some of the sights of the famous city, but Naína and Kátya tell her they don’t have that kind of time or money. They’re on a mission to leave the Soviet Union for either Canada or America, whichever accepts them. Acting like tourists would slow down that mission. After they’ve arrived in Odessa and are starting to petition for permission to immigrate, they can look around a bit.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Naína tells Kárla. “This trip isn’t long enough to merit a sleeping cabin. It’s not like we’re taking a leisurely trip from Kiyev to Paris.”
“Can I still look around while we’re here? I haven’t left the grounds of the orphanage in almost six whole years, and I don’t remember what life was like before we were in orphanages. All I remember is being transported from one orphanage to another, and being kept on orphanage grounds.”
“Go ahead, but make sure to be back by lunch,” Kátya says. “The distance between Kiyev and Cherkasi is about a hundred ninety kilometers and takes a bit under three hours, but that’s not taking into account stopping at other depots along the way. We’ve got a few stops coming. Probably we’ll be in Cherkasi within five hours.”
Naína smiles as Kárla trots off to explore the train. “See you soon,” she waves.
While Naína and Kátya are reading the newspaper and discussing current events, Kárla walks the entire length of the train. Even though this is just an ordinary train and not one transporting first-class passengers, it seems like a paradise on rails after all the cattlecars and goods wagons that took her from orphanage to orphanage. When she gets to the exit door on the caboose, she steps outside and watches the snow-covered Ukrainian landscape going backwards.
After boring of watching the scenery going by in reverse, Kárla climbs up the ladder and starts walking on top of the cars. She’s heard about people walking on top of moving trains, and wants to see if it’s as exciting as it sounds. No one else is walking around on top, so she’s not forced to step aside for anyone else.
Kárla sees a sign indicating the kilometers to Bila Tserkva. She remembers hearing about the history and sights of this historic city in some of the Ukrainian history classes she was forced to take in the orphanage. Perhaps they’ll be able to come back here after they’ve gotten settled into Odessa and are at liberty to explore the land while they’re waiting for their visas.
As the “Welcome to Bila Tserkva” sign comes into view, Kárla loses her balance and slips on a patch on ice on one of the car roofs. No one can hear the screams of an eight-year-old girl falling off the roof of a train going over a mile a minute. She tries to get up after she lands, but she screams again, this time in pain, when she stands on her right leg. Then her throbbing head overtakes her and she falls back down, lapsing into unconsciousness.