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The Hole in the Ice

Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now. The giant slap of a thunderclap and, bang, it's raining talking snakes.

A greater light to rule the day, a lesser light to rule the night, swarming water and restless air. A man goes down on two knees, a woman opens her thighs, and both hold their breath to listen. Imagining God's footsteps could be heard in the cool of the day. But God walks silently along the bank of the muddy river that flows out of the Garden, the river that divides and becomes many: Usa, Kolva, Yug, Onega. Narva, Obsha, Luga, Okhta. Volycha, Sestra, Uver, Oyat. Volga, Kama, Neva, Ob.

From the windows of the house that was my childhood home, I heard a river running. The Tura hurried past our village to join the Tobol, and the Tobol joined the Irtysh, and the Irtysh joined the Ob, and the Great Ob carried our cries and emptied them into the Kara Sea, which, being frozen, preserved them like flies in amber.

"Go on," Alyosha said whenever I fell silent. "Please, Masha, I like to hear your voice."

And I did; I told him about my father, about me, about Siberia. I told him stories my father told us when we were children. I did whatever I could to distract him.

The day they pulled Father's body out from under the ice, the first day of the new year, 1917, my sister, Varya, and I became wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, from the apartment at 64 Gorokhovaya Street to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the royal family's private village outside the capital. Eighteen years old, I hardly felt I needed a new set of parents, even if they were a tsar and tsarina. But every week brought more strikes and increasing violence to St. Petersburg. Revolution, anarchy, marshal law: we didn't know what to dread, only that we were accelerating-hurtling-toward it, whatever it was. And, as the tsar's officers pointed out, having summoned Varya and me from our beds before dawn, banging at the door with the butts of their rifles, anyone with a name as inflammatory as Rasputin would be an idiot to try to leave St. Petersburg unaided and without protection. As long as the Romanovs remained in power, they represented our only possibility of escaping Russia before it was too late to get out.

But first: my father. For without Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, the end of the Romanovs is no different from that of the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans or any other of the great dynasties that collapsed at the beginning of the century.

Word traveled quickly, more quickly than it would had any other man's body been dragged from the river. After I signed a paper confirming that the deceased was indeed my father, missing by then for three days, the police escort was to return Varya and me to Gorokhovaya Street to gather our clothes and what few things we cared to keep. But before we could climb back into the sledge it was surrounded by a mob. A crowd of people had come running to where we'd stood minutes before, on the frozen river. They came from their homes with bowls and jugs and cast-iron kettles-anything that could hold water. Some ran pouring wine and vodka, even perfume, into the gutters as they hurried to the Neva to fill their newly emptied bottles. I saw a samovar so big it required three men to carry it, and I saw an old woman lugging a chamber pot. Now, that would have made Father laugh until he hooted and howled and dried his eyes with the heels of his hands-the idea of an old crone ladling his ghost into her chamber pot.

The crowd surged onto the river like a wave and swept all the officials away from the hole in the ice, the one out of which the police had dragged my father, beaten and bloodied, his right hand raised as if making the sign of the cross. People thronged the hole. They fell on their knees, praying and weeping. The common people, the people my father loved, all along they understood what the intelligentsia were too blind to see. They wanted the water that touched my father as he was dying, the water into which his soul had passed, through which it had swum.

Thousands of people, tens of thousands-the officials lost count as they continued to arrive-came to the Neva that day and the next and the one after that. They came and they came and they wouldn't stop coming, from all parts of the city and from the outlying towns and provinces. They came over the Urals, from Siberia. Nothing could stop them, not blizzards, not cavalry soldiers. Squadrons of Cossacks on horseback took aim and fired into the crowds, and their nervous mounts reared up and came down plunging, their shoes striking sparks from the paving stones, pale pricks in the freezing gloom.

For all the horses I'd ridden in my life, I'd never seen any as spirited as these. Towering black giants, not one of them less than twenty hands high, they weren't shying at the noise and chaos-no, that was what they wanted, an orgy of movement and sound. The dark luster of each animal's coat; the volatile quiver of its flesh as it responded to its rider's intent, not to his hands, which were busy with a firearm, but to his will, which commanded the horse's body as if it were his own; the nostrils flared wide at the smell of gunpowder; the shrill whinnying and the sharp gleam of each hoof: in an instant, the sight and sound and smell of them had, like a whetted blade, pared away the rind of shock that left me, in the wake of my father's disappearance, insensible to every feeling.

I watched, struck still with wonder, as the air around the horses changed color, like iron held over a flame, stealing its heat. The officer who had his gloved fingers wrapped tightly around the top of my arm gave it a shake, as if to dispel what he must have assumed was my fear. But all it was was my succumbing to them, allowing their desire to possess me to the point that I wanted it too-the crumple and yield of bodies under hooves. Then the clamor around me ceased, all the clatter and cries and sharp cracks converged into words only I could hear, and my father's voice spoke my name. Masha, he said, be comforted, and though I wasn't faint, I fell back so the officer had to support my weight. At last something had caught and cut me, made me gasp. Until that moment, I was afraid I'd lost not only my father but myself as well.

The crowd thinned, eventually it did, but not before opportunists had set up shop along the riverbank, selling empty jars and bottles to anyone who hadn't brought one, as well as hawking bread, cheese, pomegranates, kvass and vodka by the glass, cider dipped from a pot hanging over a fire. Day and night, pilgrims stepped around and over stiffening corpses as they walked past the armed soldiers and onto the river, the gray ice of its surface slick with freezing fresh blood. They slipped and scrambled and pushed one another aside to reach the hole in the ice, because the water my father touched he made powerful. For the rest of that terrible winter, the last of the Romanovs' rule, St. Petersburg shuddered under one riot after another, and her citizens' blood remained on the ice under the Petrovsky Bridge.

At noon one February day, nearly two months after my father was murdered, I returned to that bridge and stared at the stain below. I'd come back to the city to sign our furniture over to an auctioneer, so the apartment could be rented. "We could chop up his bed into splinters and sell them as relics," Varya said as I was leaving on my errand, and I gave her a look. For all I knew, she might have been serious, but I, not Varya, was the one responsible for settling my father's estate, what little there was of it.

How, after cyanide had failed, and bullets as well, after someone had broken his poor head with a brick or a cudgel, had Father's assassins at last succeeded in killing him? They dropped him from where I was standing, perhaps. Dropped him over the guardrail and watched as the force of his body's impact shattered the river's frozen surface, gravity, which holds planets and moons and even the golden sun in its thrall, no longer innocent but an accessory to murder. Or they brought axes. They walked onto the river, bold as brass, dragging Father behind them, his hands and feet bound. Was he conscious? Did he have to watch his murderers hack at the ice to open a door to his drowning? The ringleader was a man he'd mistaken for a friend. Invited to his home, Father had come willingly and drunk the poison he was served.

The Petrovsky Bridge was bewitched, people began to say, and they avoided its narrow pedestrian walkway whenever possible, certainly at night, when traffic subsided and moans rose up from under its span. There must be a natural explanation for water making such noises as it flows beneath a frozen surface, but no one was interested in natural explanations, not that winter. And there were more curious phenomena, impossible to account for. In the attempt to wash the blood away, to remove the unwanted reminder of my dead father's continued hold over his disciples, cauldron after cauldron of boiling water had been poured over the frozen blood. Tinder was collected, saturated in gasoline, and set to burn on the ice. But the stain refused to fade. As if to accuse the assassins, it darkened and spread, and even reasonable people grew to fear a place where a holy man had been martyred.

Looking down from the bridge, I could see where blood had pooled and feet had tramped and bodies been dragged through the congealing red slick of it, each boot print and smear recorded on the river's surface. The hole in the ice never froze back over that winter. Too many people visited the spot, refilled their bottles from its bottomless font, rinsed their crucifixes, and kneeled to pray. The same pilgrims, some of them, left crosses and candles. The wind blew, it whistled and shrieked, but it knew to leave the crosses standing, the candles' flames burning, and the soup in its bowl. Someone had remembered Father's favorite meal and brought him a deep dish of thick cod soup, which steamed day and night through one blizzard after another, surrounded by a ring of water where it had melted the ice. Others brought boots, a gift traditionally presented to an itinerant healer, and there was a cask of Madeira, bottles of kvass, too many ikons to count, a heaped tangle of prayer cords, and silk stoles, such as priests wear, in gold, purple, red, in every color. Prayers, quite a lot of these, copied onto paper and, if the petitioner lacked the requisite faith, held down with rocks. But the wind let them be, rocks or no rocks. Crutches and canes and unraveled bandages, all testifying that, dead as he was, Father Grigory continued to heal those who came to him. No thief was fool enough to take any of the gifts his petitioners left, not even something as valuable as a pair of stout boots.

If only Father had remained that humble man, walking from one town to the next, he might have avoided so early a death. Forty-seven. With a constitution like his he should have lived to be a hundred.

A Red Ribbon

The journey by train from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo, sixteen miles to the south, wasn't nearly long enough for me to gather my wits. It was, at least, a slow sixteen miles, as the track had to be cleared of snow every day, several times a day, in midwinter. I told myself, on boarding, that I would use the time to write my mother a letter saying what I could not, for reasons of economy, fit in a telegram. But I never even opened my satchel to find pen and paper. Once I'd settled myself in one of the imperial train's velvet-upholstered seats, I sank immediately into a haze that left me balanced like a napping cat between unconsciousness and the hair-trigger alertness that allows it to spring out of sleep and onto a mouse. Scenery unfurled, splendid and sparkling, the last of the slanting midwinter sunlight flaring off mirrors it found in the ice. Varya, two years younger than I, slept sideways in her red velvet seat, her legs tucked under her and her hands caught between her cheek and the back of her seat in an attitude of prayer. Unbound, her dark hair fell around her shoulders like a cloak. Twice the train slowed, stopped, and, after whatever obstruction had blocked our way was cleared from the tracks, started up again.

It was dusk when we reached Tsarskoe Selo. A detail of cavalry officers greeted us at the station, and once Varya and I had disembarked, holding tight to our bags in defiance of a footman's attempt to carry them, the mounted police escorted us to a carriage bearing the gold imperial crest. Flanked on either side by a moving wall of horses and men, for a moment I felt my sister and I had been arrested rather than adopted, and I hesitated before climbing into the conveyance.

"What is it?" Varya whispered as she sat next to me.

"Nothing," I said. "It isn't anything." As the carriage started rolling, we each slid to one side of the seat, looking out the window at what we'd last seen in late summer, when it was lushly green rather than white. The sun had set, the moon was rising. The carriage lamps turned everything they touched pale yellow, and behind every yellow thing lay its purple shadow. As we approached the Alexander Palace, I saw that only the imperial family's private wing was illuminated-lit from top to bottom. From a distance it looked like a lantern left standing in the snow. But then it grew suddenly big, and we stepped out of the carriage and into a world we'd visited infrequently, and never without our father. Apart from Father we had no connection to the tsar and his family.

The trip from the foyer to the suite of bedrooms (to which a butler, housekeeper, and finally a chambermaid delivered us) involved a surprising number of double doors. Each set opened silently before us, obedient to its pair of liveried, white-gloved porters, and swung silently shut. With every threshold I crossed, with every set of doors that closed behind me, I felt that much more sleepy, as if walking ever deeper into a hypnotizing spell. By the time a lady-in-waiting had emptied our suitcases and hung up our clothes-I could not convince her, as I had the footman, that we could do for ourselves-I was on my back on my bed, asleep on the counterpane, my shoes still on my feet and my hands folded like a dead girl's over my heart.

by by Kathryn Harrison

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812973771
  • ISBN-13: 9780812973778