Yakov, my dear husband, illuminated my sky as both the sun and moon, circling my heart every day and every night. He was a provider, a joker, a craftsman, a fine father to our son Lyov. He possessed the necessary qualities to render him what some might call a good and honest man. Of course, we are all flawed in some respect. Yakov never found his way around the kitchen; even chicken noodle soup proved a challenge for the ages. He was a poor speller too, always requesting someone’s help when he wished to scribe a letter to his brother in Minsk. He certainly did not take kindly to losing games. Neither did he appreciate my aptitude in solving puzzles. I suppose I would be a liar if I claimed that our marriage was perfect, but I still believe it was beautiful, even after all that he put me through.
Since leaving his parents’ farm at the age of nineteen, Yakov worked at a metal factory in Petrograd that produced tools for the military and upcoming automotive plants. He neither hated nor loved his employer, and though they did not tolerate improvisation within the system, Yakov occasionally boasted of minor achievements while in uniform. I took his word for it since he never once invited me to visit the facility. I presumed his career, while often dreary and tedious, filled any residual voids existing beyond our family life. We did not necessarily need the money, but he felt his job kept us all happy and healthy.
Yakov was a punctual man and kept to his daily routine with the precision of a Swiss watch. He awoke around four o’clock to wash his face and dress, usually tiptoeing about so as not to disrupt my slumber. Once in uniform, he slunk to the kitchen for tea and bread with butter, cheese, and a piece of dried meat, sometimes an apple or berries if they were in season. He would then smoke a cigarette on the porch before driving out of the country and into the city. He typically returned a quarter to three in the afternoon with greasy brows and oil-stained clothes, although he repeatedly reassured me that he at least washed his hands before leaving the factory. Stepping through the doorway, Yakov would smile at my mother, then pat Lyov’s head, and kiss my cheek before pouring a small glass of vodka, which he took with him into the bathtub.
Once clean and dressed for the evening, Yakov would spend time with Lyov, usually taking him outside to play or teach him survival skills or make a game out of shooting the birds that lingered in our poorly sewn onion garden. During the spring and summer months, they often refused to return inside unless I stomped out onto the porch to nag about their cooling supper. Once his belly bulged with satisfaction, my husband typically found his way to the storage room to tinker with clocks and strange devices, honing his dream craft as an inventor. When projects on the workbench proved too frustrating, he relaxed by the hearth and read books or rolled cigarettes. Depending on the weather, he drove to the closest village twice a week to drink with friends. That was Yakov’s life. It worked for him and it worked for me.
Unlike my husband, I spent my days at home. I felt complacent, never troubled by the urge to adventure beyond my known world, and for a good reason too. The house in which we lived was built in 1888 by my father, Arvo, where he and my mother, Polina, raised me to the best of their abilities. Arvo Laukkanen was an enterprising but righteous man, the runt of an affluent family that owned enormous swaths of land and several reindeer farms throughout Finland. Rather than wear their wealth bombastically like their peers, the Laukkanen family humbly revealed it through exceptional generosity.
While my father loved his family very much, he yearned to create a life devoid of their golden strings, ever striving to prove himself the strongest amongst his five brothers. He began his divergence by leaving his Finnish girlfriend for Polina, a Russian woman he met while working in Helsinki. Although his ambition hastily moved him to her home village in Russia, his heart still forced a hand to maintain ritual contact with his kin. He never minded their letters, but he often scoffed or cursed whenever they sent us handsome gifts. When they imported a new Wolseley from England and made us the proud owners of a car with a starter, Arvo grew so angry that he loaded up his best rifle and shot the tires to assure that no one could drive it. After hypothermia took his life during the harsh winter of 1910, my Laukkanen cousins began delivering us monthly rations of food and chopped wood, occasionally adding in clothing or foreign trinkets. Unlike my father, Yakov and I gratefully embraced their hospitality. They supplied us so amply that, after a year, we realized we no longer needed Russian goods. We received everything at no cost from Finland.
Once Lyov was born a few months after my father’s passing, I advocated moving to Finland to be closer to my cousins. Mama disputed that Arvo had built our house to perpetuate his legacy of high-minded sequestration through my children and me. Yakov agreed. Thus, we remained in the hinterland just beyond the Finnish border, about thirty-five kilometers north of Petrograd. Despite that we had an abundance of quality necessities, Yakov opted to uphold his position at the factory. I should have argued, but his happiness was my contentment. Other than the desire to live near my Finnish relatives, I harbored little adoration for change and prayed daily for the continuity of a peaceful life. Alas, change is the highest constant in our universe, a facet of nature that no human can challenge even when it enters our homes and families.
On a frosty day in late October, Yakov came home a tad later than usual. Nevertheless, he greeted us, ate a small lunch, bathed, and spent time with Lyov. While he seemed his ordinary self, I detected in him a spark of apprehension. During supper, I stared at him from across the table, hoping he would consider my abnormal lull. He eventually lent me a familiar warm smile to convey his delight, yet his eyes housed a tale I yearned to understand. “Yakov, did something happen at work today?”
“Something always happens at work,” he jested.
“No, I mean, did anything out of the ordinary occur?”
“Yes, but I have faith that a remedy is underway.” He grinned again. “Please, don’t worry about it. Sinikka, my sweet black-haired angel, trust that nothing will change for us here. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and returned to my meal.
Yakov did not go out that evening, which I thought odd considering he drove to the village every Tuesday and Friday to drink and play cards with a few comrades. Neither did he tinker in the storage room. Instead, he sat by the hearth with a glass of milky vodka and rolled four dozen cigarettes. I presumed it was a simple coping method to alleviate the stress he endured at the factory that day. I thought to myself, who doesn’t occasionally take on a monotonous task to numb their mind?
The following week, everything appeared normal, if not better. Yakov glowed with such jubilance; I felt as though he was preparing to surprise me with a handsome gift. He brought me flowers one day and tried to help cook dinner on another. I was delighted! Yet this streak of bliss began to crumble on a snowy afternoon in early November when he stepped into the house with a frown cut into his round face. Before I could ask about his initial expression, he suppressed the emotion with a laugh and kiss, then went about his daily routine as if nothing pestered him. Maybe it was just my motherly senses acting up, but I knew something was amiss. Probably harsh words handed down from his employer or a troublesome colleague at the factory. Then again, he hardly ever told me anything that happened at work other than small feats and pleasant irregularities.
In those days, I understood little of the world beyond my four walls. I knew of evil kings and empires, and a terrible war that raged across Europe, although Yakov made it sound far away and beyond our concern. Still, I could not help but wonder if it was this international war that affected his mood. I brushed that notion aside, feeling that Yakov would have, at the very least, prepared us to leave if such dangers approached.
After supper, Yakov left to drink with his comrades. He ordinarily spent two or three hours out and about, but I fell asleep waiting up for him that night. I don’t remember what time he got home. My lids cracked to the soft sounds of him sliding into bed. He assumed me asleep since I did not move when he spooned his body to mind. I wondered, what kept him out for so long? My imagination ran through a handful of scenarios, each one more distressing than the last. Chagrin was a quality I scarcely emitted, especially in my relationship with Yakov. I denied the surfacing of such a trait, not without profound justification. Therefore, with exertion, I cast aside all negative thoughts.
Yakov left the house right on schedule despite his near sleepless night. Shoving away my increased worries once again, I went about my day, which began with a visit from my two favorite Finnish cousins. Elias and Taavi Laukkanen were charming young gentlemen and usually greeted me with “Moi, kaunis serkku, Sinikka!” How nice it is to be called beautiful while receiving a box of warm pastries! Taavi claimed that his wife produced the most exquisite sweets in Finland. With the delectable flavor of wild raspberry and French vanilla in my mouth, I could not argue no matter how much I prided myself as a skillful baker.
While Elias and Taavi unloaded crates of food and supplies from their truck, they informed me of some crop shortages in Finland and that their reindeer were not fatting properly. I sympathized but didn’t think much of it. Fortunately, and despite the war, their wealth allowed them to import goods from Sweden, Norway, and Britain. I felt like a worldly woman having gained the opportunity to taste the foods of foreign nations. Then again, I could not remember the last time I had eaten something produced in Russia other than the onions from our garden.
Once my cousins had emptied their truck and brought everything inside the house, they hugged me, said “Nähdään pian, Sinikka,” and returned to Finland. I sifted through several crates with Lyov and Mama, shelving as much as I could before Yakov came home. Halfway done, I broke open a box of Twinings Earl Grey and inhaled the pungent, refreshing scent of black tea with bergamot oil. I nearly melted to the floor. As soon as Yakov stepped through the front door that afternoon, I pranced toward him with a steaming cup. “Look what Elias and Taavi brought this time, Earl Grey from England! And there are other fantastic goods from across the Baltic.”
“That’s nice, Sinikka, but I will pass on the tea. I want to eat. I’m hungry.”
I should have questioned him, yet bewilderment struck me too hard to allow retort. I shrugged and drank the tea while he ate his lunch in silence. He drove out again that evening, but instead of heading east to the village, he ventured south toward the main road that led to the city. He didn’t get home until was I was sliding beneath the sheets four hours later. I thought he would speak, but he merely kissed me goodnight and shut his eyes. I wanted to rouse him and ask why he went away for two consecutive nights. Alas, I could not bring myself to interrogate him, especially once he spent the next night at home. However, he hopped in the Wolseley the following evening, then again on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday, he stayed home and tinkered into the small hours, although I did not hear the usual clinking sounds. On Friday, he didn’t come back from work. As Lyov repeatedly asked me when his father would arrive, I felt the dark flower of fear beginning to burgeon in my stomach. How could I answer him when I knew nothing?
Yakov eventually snuck in around midnight, opening the bedroom door to find me sitting up with the lamp ablaze. “Where were you?” I hissed. “I’ve been worried sick.”
“I was working, Sinikka,” he answered without hesitation, slowly stripping away his thick winter clothes. “Working very hard.”
“Your shift is six to two, Yakov. Less of a shift than most laborers.”
“Sweetheart, there’s been many issues at the factory.”
“Let’s just say that several employees recently decided to take some time off, so I’ve been covering for them. Nothing I cannot handle, my love.” He looked me straight in the eyes. “You do not need to worry. Just stay here and take care of Lyov as you always have. Be strong and happy.”
I considered his sharp gaze and chaperoning words. A surge of gall rushed to the tip of my tongue, but the loyalty in my heart restrained feral thoughts from escaping. I loved Yakov to the point of agony, and he loved me just as much. In all our years together, he never once lied to me, so I let my insecurities tumble to the wayside and smiled at him. Feeling content, I pressed my palms to his clean-shaven cheek with my fingertips and bent my neck back to expose my cleavage. I felt his mood shift, a weary but triumphant laugh in his breath. He leaned in to kiss me, warmly and slow, moving his lips to my neck, tucking one hand under the small of my back while the other glided from my breasts to my nape. Without disrupting his passion, I turned off the lamp.
November raced by, and December followed hot on its heels. Yakov worked his regular morning shift and returned home to begin his afternoon routine only to drive back to the city four nights out of the week, usually climbing into bed around eleven o’clock. We were blessed with a beautiful Christmas, though I thought with all the extra hours Yakov endured, he would have earned more money for more gifts. Lyov and I received only a handful of things compared to the prior year, mostly unique quilts and wool hats woven by locals in Novgorod. It’s not that I needed presents from Yakov, considering we received plenty of goods from my cousins, but his inexpensive purchases caused me to consider where he garnered his excess wages. Before my imagination caught on, I swallowed my prejudice with the shortsighted presumption that he kept everything in a safe somewhere in the storage room.
The first few days of 1917 seemed quiet and pleasant despite the frightening news of distant war that Yakov often brought home. He continued his newer routine complacently. Mama felt more ill than usual, but the British tea and imported food helped heighten her awareness. Lyov grew an astounding nine centimeters since I measured him in September. I reminded him each morning that he would become a strong, working man with keen intelligence like his father and grandfather. Yet, as his mother, I could never forgive myself if I allowed him to go through life without learning housekeeping skills. My grandmother once told my father that husbands, at any cost of social status or wallet girth, should know how to support a household just as a wife ought to be familiar with carpentry or factory labor. Unlike Yakov, unable to cook or write without help, I wished to mold my Lyov to impress. Women like a man who strives to provide for them, but they also relish a partner who knows his way around the kitchen and broom as well as the children and garden. With this as one of my new goals in mind, I felt that 1917 would be a wonderful year.
At the start of the second week of January, I became aware of an anomaly in Yakov’s new schedule. Whenever he returned from his six-to-two shift, he wore his blue uniform stained with oil, yet he left for his second shift garbed much more casually. To confirm my suspicion that this wasn’t a one-time occurrence, I observed him over the next few days, and he proved me correct. Upon contemplating this oddity, I remembered Yakov once explaining to me that anyone who came to work without their uniform would face severe penalties. I reminded my brooding self that I knew next to nothing of his job, let alone his life beyond our house except when divulged to me. Perhaps I was contemplating too intensely, for a wave of anxiety soon rolled over my mind, and I suddenly found myself at a loss. I didn’t know what to think of my husband. The emotion felt alien, and I hated it. I knew that I needed to be more inquisitive, however, the fear of what I might uncover prompted me to withhold my voice. Such addling! I had never suffered the urge to challenge the integrity of a family member, especially the love of my life.
I did my best to feign normality over the coming days. I must have been as proficient as a thespian, for Yakov neither questioned me nor showed any signs of dubiety. Then again, he did not linger at home often enough to see whether I maintained old habits. By the middle of January, he was in the city every night of the week with lengthened hours. Notwithstanding a constant lack of sleep, he frequently rushed out of the house as early as four o’clock and returned as late as one or two in the morning. My serene dreams slowly mutated into nightmares, each one more harrowing than the night before. I started to mediate their meanings. Maybe the events that haunted my sleep were allusions as to what my husband did behind my back.
A moment of impetuousness seized me one morning in late January. After telling Lyov to help his grandmother clean the kitchen and organize our canned foods, I grabbed a lantern from the closet and snuck into the storage room. The first thing I noticed was that the floor needed sweeping and that crates of failed projects scattered the dark perimeter. The two workbenches supported a heap of metal scraps, tools, toys, candles, and dozens of books bound in the dust. I felt that the proof I required to convince myself to accost Yakov lay somewhere in this cluttered tinkerer nest. I scoured the room and sifted through boxes. I peeled open decaying tomes and pried out cubbies. I lifted and overturned objects hoping to find a secret compartment. I dug through newspaper piles and tubs filled with Lyov’s baby clothes. Although I sensed the lunacy of my actions nibbling on my brain, I knew I could not give up no matter how badly I wanted to weep. A scream lodged itself in my throat. My hands began to tremble. Then, calm. I found it!
My eye caught a faint gleam peeking from behind a wooden tool chest on the floor. I put the lantern down and moved the trunk. An iron safe sat upon a throne of timber planks, its steel handle well-polished and gears greased. A padlock clung to two parallel metal loops that held the door tight to its frame. I quickly found the hoop of a small key inserted into the base of the lock. I turned it with prudence, removed the fastening, and lifted the handle. My muscles tensed as the safe slowly opened. And there it sat, nothing.
I could not believe it. Truly, if Yakov had been working extra hours, and knowing how much he loathed banks, his excess wages would have been right there in the safe. And, as I previously imagined, due to my generous cousins, Yakov did not spend very much at all. Considering the severe lack of newly acquired Russian goods in our household, I assumed he saved all the money. But if that was the case, where did he keep it? I knew every nook and cranny in our household. He could never hide anything from me except, of course, in the storage room where I rarely ventured. I was so certain that I would uncover his money and prove the legitimacy of his overtime hours. “Nothing,” I whispered. “Yakov has nothing. He lied to me. But what does this mean?”
As the day rolled on, I rummaged through a few scenarios on how to go about asking Yakov why he lied. If I blurted accusations, he would hastily deny them and fabricate an excuse. If I admitted that I raked through his stuff without evidence of purpose, he might grow ill-tempered and leave the house. Regardless of my words, if I confronted him in any sense, calm or angry, he would merely avert the issue and lecture me about my ignorance. If I felt confident in his honesty as always, then predictions would be effortless. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I remained the stymied detective, desperate for clues to solve this puzzle. I decided that two samples of evidence were enough to lend weight to my argument. But where to begin now?
I took a bath. My father used to tell me that sitting in hot soapy water clears the mind of distress. I prayed it to be true! I needed a new canvas to draw up fresh thoughts and maneuvers to yield results. As I relaxed in the water, smoking a cigarette, I inadvertently glanced at the heater. It was a crazy contraption, a Ruud Instantaneous Automatic Water Heater. Taavi had imported five of them from America after one of his trips out west - one for himself, one for Elias, another for their parents, one for cousin Orvokki, and one for me. With a little help from his comrade, Sergei, Yakov removed the old iron furnace, a relic that often froze in winter, and installed the American automated device. They rigged it to the house’s piping structure, which my father pieced while constructing the frame with my mother’s father and brother. The system drew water from the clear creek on the other side of the onion garden. Without such an incredible setup, and if not for my father’s ingenuity as well as Taavi’s immense generosity, I would still be avoiding baths during the winter months.
“Thank you, Papa,” I whispered to myself. “Thank you, Taavi.” I suddenly felt a spark in the back of my brain. Taavi. Yes, yes! Taavi, Elias, and a hint of patience. I now knew how to solve the puzzle that was my husband’s mischief. No longer would I remain soaked in the wintry waters of unawareness. The piping hot truth was near, so near.
Two days later, my cousins arrived around ten o’clock with a heap of news, good and bad. The good news: I received a small box of Norwegian chocolate bars called Freia. The unwelcome news: the European continental markets closed due to the extremity of what was now called the Great War. Therefore, the only goods Elias and Taavi were able to secure and deliver originated in the Nordic countries. Though the supplies appeared less extravagant than average, yet still decent quality, my cousins assured me it would only last until the end of February. They had hoped that the chocolate surprise would ease any apprehension that might arise. It did. Once all the wooden crates were inside the house, Elias and Taavi said farewell and started toward their truck. I followed them beyond the snow-coated porch and stopped them before they could open their doors. “I need a favor,” I exclaimed in Finnish.
Taavi sighed. “Sinikka, we are already doing you a favor by driving here once a month with a truck full of food and supplies. It’s getting a little dangerous. This winter is harsh, and the war is spreading quickly.”
“Please, just do this one thing for me.”
Elias shook his head. “Sinikka, we do not have the time to-”
“Yakov is living a double life!” I cried, nearly bursting into tears. They glanced at each other with their mouths agape. “Please, help me.”
“A double life?” Elias shook his head. “For how long?”
Taavi drummed his fingers on the hood of the truck and stepped forward. “Do you have any ideas of what he might be doing? Do you have any proof?”
“I’m seeking the answer to both questions.”
“So, what do you need from us?”
“Yakov drives the only automobile we own, but you have a truck.”
Elias scratched his chin. “It sounds like you want us to follow him.”
“Yes! I want you to follow him, observe where he goes and who he sees.”
After a moment of silent consideration, the brothers agreed. While awaiting my husband’s return, they occupied the day with Lyov, Polina, and me. They would later thank me for keeping them around as they thoroughly enjoyed spending time with us, drinking tea, eating chocolate, telling humorous stories. I loved my family so much that my eyes watered every time we collectively burst into laughter. I had dozens of cousins in Finland who I had not seen since before my father’s passing, but even the two that regularly visited so rarely lingered to socialize. Oh, how I wished to leave Russia and live close to them! Life would be more comfortable and refreshing. How could it not be? Elias and Taavi affably occupied my attention to the point that I needed to remind myself of the puzzle at hand. Yakov never really appreciated my puzzle-solving skills. He was always a sore loser.
About an hour past noon, I advised Elias and Taavi to drive their truck to the trees on the hill just west of the property. Growing up on a vast reindeer farm east of Oulu, they knew how to watch for wolves from a good vantage point and hunt in hazardous weather conditions. Thus, they patiently awaited my husband’s arrival and second departure. As expected, Yakov came home, ate, bathed, played with Lyov, and went out again around five o’clock. I peered out the window just as the lights of the Wolseley turned to the south. My cousins raced past the house a minute later, holding their distance with the knowledge that so few people drove cars in this rural part of the country. I prayed to God that Yakov remained blind to the pursuit and genuine toward me.
As the night persisted, my mind swelled with sour thoughts and immoral possibilities. I sat with my mother after tucking Lyov into bed. “I think I have gout,” she muttered unexpectedly. “My father, your dedushka, had gout by the time he turned fifty-four. And his mother suffered from gout at a younger age. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or natural.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I remarked. “Maybe your side of the family overeats fish and sweets or overindulges in alcohol.”
“Alcohol, certainly! If I were younger, I’d abandon drinking or at least calm down, but I’m old, and life is too short to forgo simple pleasures.”
“Stubborn as always, Mama. Well, before Elias and Taavi bring us supplies again, I’ll have them speak to a physician and get some medicine for you.”
“There’s no good medicine in our part of the world, dear.” She bobbed her head a bit and lent me a soft grin that stretched the wrinkles of her long laugh lines. “You know, it’s days like today that I wish we had moved to Finland. I never told you this, but Arvo often spoke of returning to Oulu or Helsinki. Your cousins own vast estates, you know. I’m sorry I pushed you and Yakov into staying here. It’s just that Russia is my home and your home, and your father built-”
“Mama, we don’t need to talk about this right now.”
“I’m just glad that my beautiful daughter won such a loyal and respectable husband.”
I held my breath and marched straight into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of vodka, then hastened to my room and shut the door. I don’t remember the rest of that night. I don’t recall Yakov coming home or even falling asleep. However, I do remember waking up as he prepared himself for work. My mouth spewed a few sentences, but they came out all bedraggled. He responded gently and kissed me before leaving. I must have conked out again, for I soon opened my eyes to Lyov shaking my shoulder. “Mama, mama! It’s time to get up. I’m hungry.” I sluggishly put my feet to the floor and massaged my face with my palms. My head throbbed a bit, though not enough that I couldn’t dress and cook breakfast for my darling, innocent son.
After breakfast, Lyov and I went outside to shovel snow off the onion garden. We had planted four-handfuls of tiny seeds back in October, hoping to yield at least fifty onions. Since then, we had taken an hour out of each day to check on the crops. We nearly finished the task when my cousins pulled up in their truck. A wave of dread consumed me as they walked toward the garden with long, wan faces. I knew the answer before the words became real. Elias took Lyov to play down by the frozen creek while Taavi and I stood like scarecrows amongst the feeble onion sprouts.
“We followed Yakov into Petrograd,” he began while pocketing his gloved hands. “He wove through several dim-lit streets before entering the industrial district. He parked beside a huge factory and hurried inside, at which point we posted between lamp poles to remain out of sight. He didn’t show his face for some time, so we figured he was working and would stay there for a while. Just as we decided to leave, he appeared, exiting the building with two gentlemen in fur coats and woolen caps. One of them passed a small briefcase to Yakov, who then shook their hands and got in the Wolseley. A bit flabbergasted, we pursued him to a housing complex just outside the Vyborgsky District. He parked on the street next to three other cars and stepped out with the briefcase in hand.” Taavi paused to glance at Elias and Lyov by the creek.
“Where did he go, Taavi? You must tell me.”
“He walked to the front door of the complex and knocked. He seemed a bit nervous and scanned the area behind him several times. Of course, Elias and I, again, hid in the darkness. About a minute later, a blonde woman opened the door. She smiled at Yakov, then delicately placed her hand on his forearm and kissed his cheek. He followed her inside without hesitation. As we shook our heads in disappointment, I knew we should have gone after him.” Taavi sighed. “We decided to stay put, hoping he would leave as quickly as he arrived. Unfortunately, the hours passed, and we tried to stay alert, but our lids grew too heavy. I apologize, dear cousin, we fell asleep. By the time we awoke, the Wolseley had gone. We came straight here, didn’t even stop for tea. Sinikka, I’m so sorry. I know you prayed for goods news. So, did I, to be perfectly honest.”
A storm of emotions compounded and flooded me. Disorientation. Sorrow. Hatred. Hurt. Of all the scenarios I had imagined to be Yakov’s late-night outings, sleeping with another woman was second to my hope and the worst possibility. Considering that I partially expected this, the sting should not have felt so sharp, but my heart had relentlessly advocated confidence in Yakov’s integrity. The man had such guile! I felt like a complete and utter fool. Ten years of love and bliss reverted to hot ashes blowing in the wind. He betrayed me, betrayed our son. How could he forsake us? Weeping in Taavi’s arms, I wondered about the duration of this atrocity. When and where did they first meet? Did he love her? Were there others before her or, worse, simultaneously? Taavi stroked my hair. “Dear cousin,” he whispered. “For all we know, there is more to this than what we witnessed.”
“Highly unlikely,” Elias commented as he and Lyov returned to the onion garden.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” my son innocently inquired in Finnish.
I wept harder.
“Good job, Elias! Dolt! Now, look at what you did. I was trying to calm her.”
“What’s wrong with my Mama?” Lyov whined.
“Your mother is having a rough day.”
“No, Taavi,” Elias commanded. “Do not hide what we witnessed. It was painfully obvious! Yakov is committing adultery, the gravest of sins. I’m sorry, Sinikka. Like you, we had prayed he would stay at the factory.”
“What’s adultery?” Lyov asked. “Did Papa do something bad?”
“We will explain that later,” Elias answered in a sharp tone.
Taavi released me from his arms. “Is Yakov at work right now?”
“Yes,” I blubbered.
Taavi lifted my chin. “Maybe it would be best if we talk to him.”
“No, no, no, no, no!” I cried, unable to form clear thoughts. “Please, just-just go to your faithful wives and children. Go home. Thank you for all your help. Thank you so much. I love you both with all my heart. Please, go be happy, and I will see you in a month, okay?”
“Sinikka.” Elias placed a hand on my shoulder. “I think we ought to stay here for a few hours and keep you company. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“No,” I exclaimed. “Nothing can appear out of the ordinary. No one in Russia can learn of this. Not a single person can know that you were here today, not even my mother. You went back to Finland yesterday as far as she’s concerned. Lyov shouldn’t even know.” I looked to my son, whose blazing blue eyes returned the gaze, rattled with bewilderment.
“All right, all right,” Taavi concurred. “We will leave, Sinikka, but you must be extremely careful. If we don’t hear from you within the next week or two, we’ll come back with more chocolate and tea. At worst, we’ll pack your bags and move you to Finland. We will protect you. I promise.”
I breathed in deep and nodded. Lyov didn’t understand what was happening, but I told him that hour would arrive before long. Taavi and Elias soon bid us farewell, climbed into their truck, and headed back to Finland. As they vanished around the forested hill to the west, I knelt into the onion garden and softly pressed my hands to Lyov’s cheeks. I searched his eyes, vivid and welcoming like my father’s, concealing wisdom in his shyness. I grinned and told him to go inside. “Give your babushka a big hug.” He smiled at me and walked back to the house in silence. After hearing the door shut, I broke down upon the cold earth, neither caring about the frosty bite nor the rumble in my stomach. My heart was cloven, and my son’s purity was polluted. Should the world have swallowed me in that very moment, I would have accepted with a fervent laugh.
Yakov joked with Lyov and Polina at the dinner table. He included me in his merriment to which I feigned smirks to keep his curiosity at bay, albeit I felt my lack of care was all too plain. I thought Lyov might mention what happened in the onion garden or at least Taavi and Elias’ extended visit the day before, but he instinctively acted the fool. Such a bright child! Even when Yakov asked about the origin of the goods that my cousins delivered, my son shrugged and looked to me for answers. It was then that my husband decided to inquire about my passive attitude. “I have a headache,” I flatly muttered. “I should rest.” Without finishing my supper, I tossed my napkin on the table. “I’ll clean up later.” I paced into the bedroom and fell upon the layers of blankets. My emotions surged to the surface, pressuring an explosion. No, I told myself. Crying was not an option. If Yakov saw me like that, he would feel obligated to interrogate me. I was not ready for a fight. I could only pray that he would stay home for the evening. Of course, luck did not favor me. He went out again.
The following week was mostly blurry, a glass of violent thoughts and vodka. Yakov certainly noticed my indelicacy. On Thursday afternoon, he asked if I had been drinking more than usual. I just sneered and threw myself into his leather lounge chair, sucking down half a cigarette as he turned his back and left. Each time he stepped out that door, I wondered if it would be the last, whether he would finally run away with the blonde woman or come home to find me dead from insanity. The deep, clear river of love in which I once blithely swam now ran black with malice. I felt myself drowning. I imagined various methods to kill Yakov - smother him in his sleep, shoot him with his rifle, pour a flammable liquid over the car engine, poison his food and drink – to name a few.
Yet, once upon a time, Papa overheard me plotting to hurt my Russian cousin Nadiya. She had always been jealous of me, so much that she pushed me into a puddle of mud and called me the anti-Christ in front of my Finnish cousins at a big family gathering. Papa opened the door to my room that evening and sat on the floor beside me, where I had been drawing hideous pictures of my plan. He shook his head and spoke to me in Finnish. “Sinikka, I know you’re upset, but Nadiya is your cousin. Family and friends mock each other all the time, often pressing beyond limits. My brothers used to dump buckets of reindeer pee on my head in front of pretty girls. That was their way of teasing. I hated it, as you might expect, but a rivalry is natural among relatives. Just because Nadiya embarrassed you doesn’t mean you need to return the favor. Revenge is like an ointment. It can soothe a sore, but it cannot heal the wound.”
My hands trembled to the memory. Even if I went the full distance and killed Yakov, my heart would remain asunder. I would have to live on knowing that I murdered my husband. Guilt steps on the heels of those trying to escape their misdeeds, or so goes another proverb by Arvo. I felt hot tears trailing down my cheeks. The cup in hand touched my lips. The burn of vodka came and went. Empty. Polina entered the kitchen to tell me Lyov fell asleep. I poured another glass and continued until my world spun and crashed into a pillow.
Taavi and Elias arrived one morning in early February as they intended, to check on me since I never wrote them about any changes or my condition. They brought an assortment of treats, from Freia chocolates and British tea to Finnish candy and Swedish vodka. As they unloaded the goods, they asked about my health and the state of my marriage. My answer made them grimace. They embraced me with apologies, showering me with compliments. I denied their attempt at bolstering my self-esteem. I felt like a depressed, haggard wench. My mouth then spat a sentence that even I did not expect. “I need to see him.”
“You need to see who?” Elias asked.
“I need to see Yakov walk into that building. I must witness him with the blonde woman.”
“I do not think that is wise,” Taavi admitted, shaking his head.
“For the love you bear me, cousins, please drive me there tonight. I must end the madness that plagues me like a goddamn disease. My heart is shattered. My mind is in turmoil. God only knows what Lyov and Polina think of me. It’s time I confront Yakov and rebuild myself. And if I am to challenge him, I cannot prove he is having an affair by merely claiming that I heard of it from another’s mouth. I need to tell him that I saw it with my own two eyes. Do you understand?”
“We do,” Taavi answered, looking to his brother, who nodded. “We will do it, but no more than this. And I beg you, we beg you, do not mention our names to him. There must be no evidence of our involvement.”
“You have my word,” I promised.
“Good. When this is all over, Sinikka, you will return with us to Finland. No more of this. Between your family troubles and the war shifting closer, we can no longer deliver aid, not for an exceptionally long time. So please, once you have resolved your issues with Yakov, we will bring two trucks to move your family to safety. Okay?”
“Kyllä,” I answered. “Yes, when all has ended, I will go to Finland.”
It proved to be the coldest night of the season. The snow was the heaviest I’d seen since the winter of 1910. I dressed three layers thick with a fur cap that nearly blocked my sight. Such a mission as I was on required sharp observation, so I drank a few cups of strong tea before leaving the house. However, I found it strange that while following Yakov toward the city in Taavi’s truck, my mind was not on my husband but my son. I knew that his life was changing and that his innocence would inevitably fade. Yet it was on that drive that I realized the severity of my actions and how the result would genuinely affect Lyov. The notion petrified me. I felt like a monster. He had already asked about adultery and what misdeeds his father might have done. I could not begin to imagine his reaction when he finally learns the reality of the situation and what I endured to discover it. I was about to ask Taavi to turn around when Petrograd suddenly came into view.
I will admit that the capital was an extraordinary place. Papa occasionally took me here to see the Tsar’s palace and load his wagon with goods that were unattainable in the countryside. I had not seen the city since my father became ill seven years prior. Of course, it held the name Saint Petersburg in those days. Following the outbreak of the war with Germany and its allies, the Russian government changed the name to Petrograd, expunging the German words Sankt and burg. Its name made no difference to me. All I saw was an immense grid of human power. Full streets and narrow alleys sewed marketplaces, apartments, brick buildings, and colorful onion-domed churches into a grandiose blanket of urbanization.
Electric trams scuttled along their snow-plowed tracks, moving abreast to slow buggies and pedestrians. Black smoke billowed from factory chimneys and white smoke from housing complexes. Trains and ships blew their whistles to call upon workers and tradespeople. Imperial soldiers stood noticeably with their eyes on passing civilians, hunting for someone whom only they knew. I did not gain the opportunity to see the Winter Palace, but I remember that it stood somewhere along the Neva River near the city center, beating proudly as the heart of a vast nation. Living in the countryside for so long, I forgot what a real city looked like and how it felt.
My attention drew back to our pursuit when we dodged a man bolting across the street and sharply turned into the industrial Kalininsky District. Here, Yakov parked in front of an enormous factory. Just as my cousins previously observed, he went inside for a long duration and, later, exited alongside two gentlemen. One of them handed my husband a small briefcase, which he carefully placed on the passenger side of the Wolseley. He then drove westward, turning here and there, this way and that. As the Wolseley began to slow down, Taavi slipped the truck into a lightless spot on the left side of the road and turned off the engine. Yakov circled back at the end of the block, parking between two cars on the other side of the street.
“This is the place,” Elias whispered.
“Strange,” Taavi added. “Last time, he got out of the car as soon as he stopped. I wonder if he’s waiting for someone?”
I searched the area until I noticed a pair of imperial officers walking toward the street corner adjacent to Yakov. He lowered his black woolen cap and stared at them. The guards glanced in his direction but soon disappeared behind a building. Yakov quickly burst from the car and hurried to the housing complex door, which stood in a receded archway of stone. Not a moment too soon, the guards returned, vigilant as a pair of wild cats on the prowl. They drew up their bayonet-tipped rifles and stepped out onto the open street corner, twisting their heads side to side. Despite that darkness protected my cousins and me, we instinctively ducked behind the dash of the truck. But my curiosity lifted my head to find Yakov slinking low with his spine pressed to the door of the building, the briefcase half-hidden by his legs.
After a heart-pumping minute, the guards ceased their concerns and walked away. Yakov put a hand over his chest and peeked beyond the archway to ensure his safety. I found it bizarre that he hid from the officers, considering other people strolled about that evening without apprehension. Yakov composed himself and knocked on the door. A blonde woman appeared, and my blood began to boil. I had hoped with all my heart that my cousins were sorely wrong, but I should have known better than to second guess them. They’ve always told the truth, unlike my wretched husband. Damn him! What did this woman possess that drew him like a moth to a flame? I squinted to better focus, hungering to get a glimpse of this tramp. She looked tall and beautiful with an asymmetrical face. Perfect lips. Perfect hips. She kissed Yakov on the cheek. I almost screamed. She pulled him into the house and quickly shut the door. “Let me out. I’m going to kill him!”
“Sinikka, no!” Elias commanded, grabbing my arm.
“You’re not leaving this truck,” Taavi confirmed.
“Did you see how that filthy whore touched my Yakov? I refuse to let her get away with it. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kick that door down.”
“Sinikka,” Taavi snapped. “We’re leaving right now!
“No! Don’t!” I cried as Taavi started the engine and put his foot to the pedal, hauling us out of Petrograd in haste. I shouted and beat the seat with my fists like a spoiled child. Taavi growled at me to act mature and assuage my emotions. But I was too enraged to listen and tried to take control of the steering wheel. Elias yanked me back and pulled me into his arms, shushing me. I struggled and shook and groaned until, finally, I gave up and pressed my cheek to his coat and wept on his sleeve. He patted me on the back, whispering words of comfort all the way home.
The house knew only silence that night. Mama sat on the sofa with her neck bent back, snoring up a storm. Lyov lay across the cushion with his head on her lap, his lids twitching to the dream within his head. I wanted to smile at the preciousness but could not find an ounce of joy to let loose. I soon dragged myself into bed with tears searing my reddened cheeks. I crawled under the sheets and blankets, not even bothering to slip on a nightgown or remove my shoes, then put my head to the pillow and stared at the dark wall. My mind raced. Yakov was having an affair. Now what? Admittedly, it would behoove us to split up. Our marriage was kaput. Did I even need to confront him at this point? Was I to pack up my belongings and take my son and mother to Finland without him knowing? Or was it worth the trouble to hash everything out in an argument? Perhaps smothering him in his sleep was best or bashing his head with a hammer. In the end, I believe I made the correct choice. When Yakov entered the bedroom around one in the morning, I hit him with all I had.
“You are a disgusting maggot!” I barked. “Impul’snyy byt!”
“Sinikka.” He lurched back a step. “What’s wrong? Why are you so angry?”
“You are what’s wrong! You are why I am angry! Glupyy muzhchina!”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“That blonde harlot in Vyborgsky, you’ve been paying her nightly visits for nearly half a year. Sleeping with another woman, Yakov, I never thought you to be the type! Do you realize we have been married for ten years? Ten years! That’s one-third of my life, an enormous chunk of my existence wasted by your sleazy, disloyal actions. Filthy pig! If my father was here right now-”
“Darling, darling! What are you talking about? What blonde woman?”
“Are your ears clogged with her sweat? Imbecile!”
“Sinikka, nothing of what you speak has happened. I’ve been working every single night, laboring diligently to benefit our family.”
“Shame on you, Yakov! Where do you get the gall to lie to your bride? I thought I was your lady and, you, my noble prince. I’ve long boasted to my family that you’re the most honest man in the world and that I’m lucky to be yours. Even my father, who loved you as a son, now rolls over in his grave, utterly abashed. He would suffer a second death if he knew of your promiscuity, that you happily bent over that blonde hag in Petrograd.”
“Dear wife, I am still your honest husband. I swear I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Nothing wrong, are you mad? You thought you could get away with it? You thought yourself so sly, so confident that no clues tumbled to the wayside. Come on, Yakov! Of all people, you know that solving puzzles is a hobby of mine. You know I’m damn good at it. And you are the worst puzzle I’ve ever had to solve. Disgraceful! You say you labored all those extra nights, and for what? You brought no spare money to the table. You saved nothing. And I ought to know. I searched in your tinkering room. I looked in the safe. I felt like a maniac, unable to fathom what you did beyond these walls. But then I saw it with my own two eyes. I saw you, Yakov! I saw that blonde woman kiss you. I saw her pull you into the building with a loving smile. I was there.”
“How did you-”
“I have relatives, you idiot! You know they would do anything to help me.”
“Elias and Taavi?”
“Do not speak their names. They are no longer your family. This marriage is over, Yakov. We are done, finished!”
He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to take my hand in his, but I threw his gesture aside and folded my arms. “Sinikka, my love, you have it all wrong. Never in my life would I think to compromise our marriage. I love you to the ends of the earth. To commit such a heinous sin against you is not in my nature. Lying, too. You know this.”
“Yet, you did both.”
“No, Sinikka, I did not. Please, hear me out.”
“I hope your defense is worth the breath.”
“I won’t defend something that doesn’t exist. Listen, there are things that, well…” He sighed. “Do you remember that terrible incident in 1905 when the Tsar left the palace, and his imperial soldiers shot Father Gapon’s peaceful procession in the street?”
“Yes, it was a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday. My uncle made a big stink about it.”
Yakov continued, “Since that bloody Sunday, even before, Mother Russia has been spiraling into disarray. Nikolai Romanov, the dastardly Tsar, is poison to our country. Our nation deeply suffers at his every word and deed. You would never know because you get everything from your wealthy Finnish cousins. Here, there are food shortages and economic deficits. This winter, especially, has proven brutal to our people. Worse, even while the Tsar is at war with Germany, his administrative substitutes do nothing to combat the horrific events at home. They purposely ignore the lament of the Russian people.”
“Yakov, what does this political jabber have to do with you sleeping with that woman?”
“It has everything to do with it. That blonde woman is not my mistress. She is Yuliya, the wife of Dimitri Pasternak, who is a former coworker and good comrade of mine. She is only a doorkeeper made to appear as a lover or an accepting spouse to those who enter. What you saw is what needs to be seen by the public. Do not think I would ever hurt you. Yuliya is an associate of mine, nothing more.”
“Associate… Associate of what?”
“Sinikka, I know that you are not often aware of what transpires beyond this house. Let me tell you that a radical event is about to occur. Change is coming to Russia, and when it happens, we must stand on the right side. Strikes and marches are on the way.”
“Associate of what, Yakov?” I snarled.
“Our party, under the mastermind, Lenin, is plotting. We are readying ourselves for the revolution. All is coming to a head.”
“Our, we? I am not a Bolshevik. I am no turncoat, Yakov. I am a tsarist like my parents. The Romanovs have ruled Russia for three hundred years. They are Mother Russia.”
“You can’t be serious, Sinikka,” he snapped. “What you say is fallible! You cannot be a tsarist. My wife will not praise the imperial government, not while the Romanovs, a string of Hapsburg whelps, are ruining this country, the same country that birthed you and helped you grow.”
“Remember that I am half Finnish and very proud of it.”
“Arvo was Finnish, sure, and you can speak that language, but you only do so with your cousins and our son on occasion. You were born in this house on this side of the border. You are just as Russian as me.”
My hands began to tremble. “Do you know what my father said about the incident in 1905? He said that although he and my mother sided with Father Gapon and the factory workers, their method of protest only brought about chaos. Instead of a massive crowd, a small group of representatives should have made an appointment and met with the Tsar. They could have avoided all that trouble and blood.”
“You are ignorant of the truth if you honestly think that way, Sinikka. Please, do not be so blind. Far more occurred in 1905 than what you know, what preceded the incident, the strikes that followed. And it’s only worsened over the past decade. Our country is begging for true reform!”
I chuckled under my breath. “So, this is it? This is what you’ve been doing all these months behind my back? You’ve been attending political conferences and lying to me about it, saying that you’re working longer hours or other shifts. And you dare to call me ignorant?”
“All right, fine! I lied, but only because I feared your reaction. Still, I have not deceived our marriage. Neither was I so dishonest. In my eyes, attending these meetings is a form of work. And it is challenging work at that. Dear wife, I concealed it to keep you safe. Also, they are not political conferences but gatherings of concerned citizens. You must understand what the Social Democratic Labor Party represents and what we are trying to do. Rasputin may be dead, but there is still corruption in the Winter Palace. And we yearn to help those suffering under the continued oppression of the tsar. To be a Bolshevik is to fight tyranny. What we strive to achieve is for the good of the common people, for the good of the working class, for the good of Mother Russia.”
“I cannot believe you, Yakov! My husband is a traitor to his monarch and country. Judas!”
He grabbed my wrist. “I am no Judas. I am a loyalist, fully dedicated to our family and this great nation, not to Nikolai Romanov and his greedy family. The quality of a country should never be second to the personal pleasures and gains of its sovereign. Please, Sinikka, come to a gathering. Come so that you can understand why I commit so much time to this matter. I beg of you!”
“I will not listen to you anymore, Yakov, not about the tsar, not about your long nights in the city, and certainly not about my joining your mutinous cause. I will sleep in my mother’s room from now on. You can have your rebellion. You can have your gatherings. Just leave our son and me out of it!”
I marched out of the room and slammed the door. Polina and Lyov awoke with a fright. I tore them from the sofa and pulled them into my mother’s bedroom for the night. After Lyov went back to sleep, I informed Mama of everything that happened. I told her about the lies, the blonde woman, the madness that consumed me, my cousins’ involvement, Yakov’s retort, the Bolsheviks, and my father’s opinion on the 1905 massacre. She listened to my woes, but her reply was neither what I expected nor wanted to hear.
“Your father was a sweet man with a noble heart,” she said with a weary grin, “and very wise much of the time. However, his opinion on Russian politics did not always chime with my family or our friends, probably because he was born and raised in Finland, therefore owning an outsider’s perspective. You may have Arvo’s Finnish blood, and I know you’re proud of that, but you also have my blood, and you were born here. Yakov is not wrong. You are Russian. Perhaps it would befit you to attend one of those political meetings. It might open your eyes a bit.”
“Shut your mouth, Mama,” I hissed. “How dare you suggest such a thing! I’d rather cut off my legs than bend to my lying husband’s whim, let alone stray from my father’s loyalty to the tsar.”
“Sinikka, your father was never loyal to the tsar. He only spoke highly of Nikolai Romanov to tease my side of the family. You heard him say such things without realizing they were humorous to him. It’s not your fault; you were young. Arvo never cared for the imperial government or any sovereignty for that matter. He wouldn’t even have left Helsinki if not for his stubborn ambition to outdo his brothers, wanting to prove he could survive without the Laukkanen bank accounts. However, at his core, your father was fiercely loyal to his family and Finland. Does that sound familiar?”
My speechless ire swept me from my mother’s room and into the kitchen. I poured myself a large glass of Swedish vodka and drank myself to sleep in the rocker.
The next day, Yakov roused me with his gentle touch and asked if I would join him that night for a gathering of concerned citizens. With a throbbing headache, I drove him out of the house like a wolf on a lamb. He jumped in the Wolseley and hurried to work. I simmered in discontent all morning long. I was short with Polina and growled whenever Lyov did not obey me, though I regretted it each time it occurred. I could only imagine how that poor little boy perceived me, his heavenly guardian fallen to hell, from shining to shambles. I blamed Yakov for the removal of my wings.
Around noon, my head still swollen with the heat of hatred, I sat in the leather lounge chair with a new glass of vodka. I lit up one of Yakov’s cigarettes and looked at Lyov, who sat by the hearth fiddling with a wooden toy train. Seeing him play so innocently while I stewed with alcohol and tobacco in hand made me question what I had become. Was it really Yakov or my own head games that fragmented me? I guess it didn’t matter anymore with the truth now revealed. Either way, using proper skills, any broken thing can get pieced back together. It’s like a puzzle. I’ve always been good at puzzles, and Yakov was a sore loser. However, I might have been the sorer loser. To bring me even lower than I felt, while finally closing my husband’s case, another mystery lay upon the table. Me. Yet who was going to solve my puzzle?
Yakov came home around three o’clock to a table that appeared devoid of lunch. Instead of a complaint, he smiled and foraged through the pantry for bread and cheese. He spent much of the late afternoon with Lyov outside, fishing through the ice in the creek. At dinner, he stared at me with sorrowful eyes. I could tell he wanted to talk to me but knew I would shut him out. Later, while Lyov was drawing on papers in his room, Yakov found me indulging myself by the hearth. He casually removed the vodka glass from my hand and placed it on the mantle. I blew smoke at his face hoping he would choke and cough. He silently responded by igniting a cigarette of his own, then glared at me for a minute before clearing his throat. “My friends are dying to meet you, Sinikka. And I want you to understand who we are and what we stand for. Please, come with me tonight. I know you will appreciate it; I just know it. We can even grab a drink somewhere in the city if you’d like.”
I could not find it in my heart to forgive him for causing me such distress, months of uncertainty, such prolific doubt in our relationship. I snatched the glass from the mantle. “Get out of my sight.”
Day after day, Yakov asked me to join him. And night after night, I denied him. I often answered his questions in a vicious tone, snarling like a wounded hound. Other times, my silent glares and scowls were enough to repel him. Yet, no matter how much I shunned him, he persisted. I grew so frustrated that I began sleeping in Lyov’s room to avert Yakov in the mornings and evenings. I had already quit making him lunch, but dinner soon followed. He would return from his outdoor playtime with Lyov only to ask me if I was ready to meet his friends and learn about the political issues of Russia. My steadfast retorts did not faze him, even as he cooked himself a low-quality meal while the rest of us ate like upper-class citizens.
To further push Yakov’s buttons, I started refusing him all the goods delivered by my cousins, but to no avail. He began buying expensive Russian products from his Bolshevik friends, from vegetables and oil to toothbrushes and aftershave. My mother pitied him and often cooked him meals behind my back, although she too quickly found herself deprived of Nordic goods. Lyov was the only one who received my full love, even with his unbroken devotion to Yakov. While he certainly knew the severity of his parents’ arguments, he had yet to learn the cause. I had a feeling that such a day would soon arrive.
On the twenty-fourth of February, Yakov returned home from a significant strike in Petrograd. On his head sat a strange wool cap with a red star on the front. I later learned that it to be a budyonovka, the hat of the Bolsheviks. With vigor in his voice, Yakov took Polina’s hands and hoisted her to her toes. They cheered for the people of Russia who had finally united against the imperial government. Lyov joined the merriment and danced around the house as if it were Christmas again. They shouted, “No more famine, no more war, no more tyranny!”
“Stop!” I yelled. “Stop right now! Yakov Ivanovich Brevsky, how dare you bring your radical politics into this house and boast of it in front of Lyov, let alone allow him to chant along with you! I ought to break your head for influencing my virtuous son. You too, Mother. Shame on both of you. We will have no more of this!”
“We are for the people’s party,” Yakov rebutted peaceably. “Even the children of this great nation ought to understand that, for it is they who will inherit it.”
“Never!” I cried with fire in my heart. I hurried to the kitchen to grab the vodka and some British soup crackers, then pulled Lyov into his room and locked the door. I knew I was drunk and heeling at the spurs of a violent mood, but passion shone through the madness. I shouted at the door about moving to Finland, then turned to Lyov. He bore a mingled expression of sorrow and dread, eyes pooling with disappointment. He quietly fell back to a corner in the room and took up his wooden train but did not play. That’s when I realized he was afraid, utterly terrified of his mother. “What have I become?” I whispered as I dropped to the floor with my back to the door, letting the vodka bottle roll toward Lyov’s bed. I thought I heard my son speak, but it was only Yakov in the hallway. I wrapped my arms around my legs and wept until weariness laid me out.
I awoke on the floor the next morning to find Yakov kneeling beside me, his face hovering over mine with a bland expression. He had picked the lock from the other side with some tools from his tinkering table. “What are you doing here?” I asked, feeling cold and empty. “You should be at work.”
He chuckled. “All the factories are closed. The city is on strike. We are near the end, my love. I can feel it. If the government does not abide by the people, then our numbers will continue to grow. Today is another march, the biggest yet. It will be peaceful but compelling. I won’t ask you to join. I know you will deny me. Just know that I-”
“I will go,” I muttered, tears trickling over my cheeks. “I give up.”
“I will go with you, Yakov. Just let me get ready.” Despite the reluctance and sadness in my voice, my husband lit up like a firework and pulled me to my feet and smothered me with hugs and kisses. I could have said one-hundred hollow words at that moment, yet they would breeze in one ear and out the other, and he would turn his cheek and smile because my surrender was an opportunity for conformity. In truth, it was for Lyov that I agreed to go with Yakov. I needed my son to feel good about himself and happy to see that his parents stood unified, not two buffoons too blind and antipathetic to comprehend one another. Holding this notion like a charm in my mind, I washed up, dressed, and made breakfast for my family.
By mid-morning, we were heading south toward the city on the main road. A strange but familiar sensation filled me as I watched the passing scenery. I looked at the trees garbed in their white coats, lakes slumbering beneath sheets of ice, fishermen teaching their children how to saw holes in frozen waterways, dogs pulling men on sleds with small loads of timber, humbled wives scraping frost from the windows of their cottages, winter animals peeking from the nooks and crannies of the woods. I had lived here all my life. It was where I grew up and where I raised my son. It hit me then that this country was indeed my home, my heart.
I turned to Yakov whose hands confidently grasped the steering wheel while his eyes safeguarded our journey along the snow-covered road. It felt good to be driving with my husband again, just he and I on the go. It reminded me of the days before Lyov was born when we would take my father’s buggy to the Baltic shore and dance to songs of wind and breaking waves. I put my hand on Yakov’s arm. He smiled at me.
Petrograd was a sea of chaos. We parked the car in the Vyborgsky district near the secret meeting place of his political comrades. Hundreds of people marched through the streets, walking, singing, talking, shouting to the buildings that they were sick of oppression and tyranny. Men and women in uniforms carried signs that voiced their woes and hatred. Yakov and I soon walked among them, weaving through a crowd that appeared to be heading in several directions. Some went toward Kazan Cathedral while others aimed toward the port. We followed the group that looked to protest before the walls of the Winter Palace itself.
I did not expect to find myself amazed at what I witnessed. An older man marched with a spear over his shoulder, its blade stabbed through an empty bread sack. A group of children pulled their brothers and sisters on wagons, announcing, “It’s not enough!” Loving couples yelled to the sky. The elderly threw their fists into the air. A group of women with dry, stainless aprons surrounded a city official and beat him for his loyalty to the tsar. I felt my heart pounding, my mind racing. I felt my lips creep up into my cheeks. Yakov suddenly pulled a gentleman aside and shook his hand. Festooned on the man’s arm was the blonde woman, Yuliya. She proved to be extremely cordial and was genuinely excited to make my acquaintance. She and her husband, Dimitri, had heard nothing but impressive compliments about me. I wanted to curse myself for playing the belligerent fool living in a wooden box. Appreciation quickly filled me, and I felt alive, more than ever before. These people trusted each other. They were good-hearted Russians uniting for a single, noble cause to save themselves from calamity and living in the dark.
As we neared the city center, protesters began to grow violent toward two dozen police officers who threatened the march with their weapons. Yakov’s friends shepherded us to a safer area where a crowd waved well-worded banners to the rhythm of their chants. Marching toward the Winter Palace alongside these fine citizens made me feel like a true woman of Russia. I embraced the thrill and pulled Yakov’s lips to mine. He laughed and proclaimed his undying love for me, then turned to the palace and howled for bread and justice in the name of God. As I added my voice to his, I noticed that Petrograd’s military had come out to meet us. Yakov told me not to worry as we, the people, held the advantage.
A commanding officer on horseback shouted from the center of the regiment. The soldiers responded at once by marching forward to frighten the crowd and drive us away from the palace. We harbored no fear and pressed on, our voices louder and emotions stronger. Suddenly, a rifle went off. I froze. A row of protesters dropped to the frosty ground for cover. Someone threw a blunt object at the soldiers in retaliation, which triggered the front line of the regiment to burst their ranks and start shooting at us. We dispersed in a roaring torrent of human cries. The man to my rear shoved me forward. I fell on my face and bit my tongue bloody. My whole life flashed before my eyes. Death hovered above, and I screamed. Luckily, Yakov pulled me up and into his arms, rescuing me from the terrible fate of getting trampled in the snowy street.
Another round of gunfire ripped through the air. Two bullets passed me; one grazed my shoulder. I shut my eyes and put a hand to the sting, embracing the pain for the sake of my love and our child. When I opened my eyes, Yakov lay on the ground, blood oozing from his neck. I screamed for help, but the frightened mob retreated without thought. I hoisted my husband by the armpits and used all my strength to drag him from the center of the square. He gurgled nonsense like a sleepy drunkard. I begged him to hold on and keep breathing. By the time I pulled him out of the crowd, he was gone.
I knelt over my husband’s body and bawled like fierce autumn rain. Some tried to grab my wounded arm and tow me to safety, but I resisted and wailed. How could I go on without my Yakov? How could I even care about the protest now? To hell with the soldiers, cursed maggots! They shot my husband, but why not kill me too? I would have accepted the blow as a gift.
I got up and tried to hoist Yakov over my shoulder, but he was too heavy for me. Thus, I laid him to rest beside a building and closed his eyes while whispering a prayer to God. The blood on my hands dripped into the snow as I overlapped my fingers. I knelt and looked down at his face, remembering all the events that led up to this moment. I recalled my father and my mother’s advice. Then, suddenly, I felt Yakov’s breath against my ear, lecturing me about the evil doings of the imperial government. Lifting my eyes from the man who I knew as my loving husband, I saw an image of the prideful tsar on a brick wall and, in my peripheral view, a troop of soldiers marching my way. I thought of my son, Lyov. He needed to live in a country that would allow him to prosper, to grow big and healthy and wise, a country he could be proud of, a country that would take care of him as I took care of him. He needed Russia, the land of his parents, his home. That’s what Yakov wanted all along, and it took me this long to realize I wanted it too.
I grabbed my husband’s wool cap, his budyonovka, and placed it on my head, then snatched up a fallen Bolshevik banner and followed the crowd through the heart of Petrograd, chanting for the liberation of Mother Russia.