Authors: Linda Holeman
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Prayers wouldn’t bring bread, or another blanket or warm boots or safety from the teeth of the saw. He believed that the others were wasting their time praying for comfort. As he learned to survive in the camp, he knew he was also learning to survive outside of it. He would work for or steal what he needed, depending only on himself.
As spring approached, he made a plan with two other men, both a few years older than him. He’d been in the camp
nine months, and knew if he didn’t make his escape soon he’d be too weak. The three men waited for the perfect conditions: a moonless, balmy night, the guards outside their hut drunk and arguing. They killed first one guard and then the second and ran through the darkness into the thick forest. Which of them drew the knife, made from a broken saw blade, across the men’s stubbled throats remained their secret: they were all guilty. They separated once they were three days from the camp, not wanting to be reminded by each other of what they had become.
Grisha made his way west, his small sack strapped on his back. He crossed the rest of Siberia by walking and begging rides in carts. Through that spring and summer he stole what he could from gardens, living for days on the first tiny spring onions and bulbs of garlic. He stole from the backs of rough carts delivering grains and from horses’ feed bags. He stole clothing hung to dry; he once stole boots from the feet of a sleeping drunk. Some of what he stole he sold for a few kopecks in the next village. He fought senseless arguments with his fists after too much vodka.
The one thing he would never allow himself to do, the one thing that he knew would be the last step to truly make him the animal he felt he was becoming, was to take a woman against her will. When he wanted a woman but didn’t have enough to pay for her, he shrugged and walked away.
As the cold weather once again descended, he passed the marker that stood on the border between Siberia and western Russia. He thought of his father as he stared at the rough cylindrical stone symbol, taller than him by a head. Although Aleksandr Kasakov had never spoken to his son of his brutal time in the mines, he did say that when he and the cartload
of chained prisoners passed that marker, on the way into Siberia and away from everyone and everything they knew and loved, many of the men—strong and dignified—put their faces into their hands and wept.
Unlike his father and those wretched men, Grisha was travelling west, not east. As he looked over his shoulder, he allowed himself one final goodbye to his mother and his lost brother. He swore that he would not live with guilt, guilt for what he had done to them, and to the prison guards, and to all the people he had wronged in order to survive. It was the only way he could live his new life.
He put his hand on the cold stone marker, resisting the old urge to cross himself, and then stepped into European Russia.
r. Molov arrives at Angelkov a few hours after Antonina left Grisha in the kitchen. She is in Konstantin’s room when he is shown in, and stands beside him as he listens to Konstantin’s heart and then slowly moves a candle back and forth in front of his eyes. Konstantin allows the doctor to do as he wishes.
“Countess Mitlovskiya,” the doctor says, setting down the candle and facing her. “I’m very sorry for the tragedy that has come upon your home. It’s spoken of throughout the villages and on the neighbouring estates.”
“The fever,” Dr. Molov says, “when did it begin?”
“I don’t know. Maybe yesterday,” Antonina says, swallowing at the strong smell of garlic on the man’s breath. “His good hand and his feet have been bathed in cool water and vinegar, but it isn’t bringing down the heat.”
The doctor again bends over Konstantin and begins to unwrap the dressing. When the last round of linen is pulled away and the smell is fully released into the room, even he reacts with a small intake of breath. Antonina presses her handkerchief to her nose and mouth.
“This should have immediately been well cleaned and stitched,” Dr. Molov says. “How many days since he was hurt?”
“Four.” It’s been four days since she’s held her son, she thinks.
The doctor shakes his head, opening his bag and pulling out a small leather case. After he’s worked over Konstantin with warm water and disinfectant, needle and thread, he and Antonina go into the hall. He tells her he will check on the count’s progress in the morning; there is nothing more to be done this evening. He has ridden to the estate from the city of Pskov, and will stay overnight at Angelkov.
Antonina nods. “Thank you, Dr. Molov,” she says, and goes down the long hall to her bedroom.
Tania has waited until the doctor and the countess have left Konstantin’s bedroom. She enters with stacks of towels and bed linens. “Will he recover?” she asks Pavel.
“The doctor has done what he can,” Pavel says as the woman sets down the clean laundry. Pavel knows about her relationship with Konstantin. Everyone on the estate knows, including the countess. Pavel watches her. She is very like Konstantin’s first wife, dark-complexioned and raw-boned, the same age as the first Countess Mitlovskiya. The count started to make his demands on Tania six months after his wife succumbed to a lifelong stomach ailment.
Tania leans over the count and strokes his cheek. “Kostya,” she whispers. She hopes he recovers. After thirteen years, she is used to the small pleasures the extra weekly rubles from her master bring.
He doesn’t stir, and Tania, without looking at Pavel, goes downstairs and back to her room in the two-storey stone building behind the manor that houses the servants of Angelkov.
In her bedroom, Antonina thinks about how she could have had her son back by now. She could have, if not for Konstantin. Her anger at him is too intense to let her sleep.
The next morning, Antonina pulls herself out of bed, her head dull and her eyes gritty. The horror of it all, the sleepless nights and too much vodka are taking their toll. She knows she has to see to her husband, but even the thought of walking down the hall is daunting. She holds Tinka against her, pressing her face into the little dog’s warm fur. When Lilya comes in, she gently guides Antonina into the chair in front of the dressing table and pins her hair haphazardly for the time being. She speaks to Antonina as she wipes her face with a warm, damp cloth, but Antonina can’t quite make sense of what she’s saying. It’s as if she is underwater.
As Antonina moves slowly to her door to go to Konstantin’s room, Lilya stops her, putting a robe over her nightdress and then a shawl over her shoulders, clasping it with a sapphire brooch. She stoops and picks up Tinka, who tries to follow Antonina.
Grisha is standing outside the count’s room. He bows to
Antonina and opens the door for her. Antonina enters. Her husband is as motionless as he was the evening before, although now his eyes are closed. There is dried matter on his lips. Dr. Molov is sitting on a chair beside the bed, holding Konstantin’s injured hand. The edges of the wound, under the new stitches, are swollen and reddish-purple, pushing against the thread. Through the stitches seeps a fluid, bloody and yet not entirely blood.
“It’s worse?” Antonina asks. The words are measured. She has no saliva, and her lips are slightly numb.
“Yes,” the doctor says, glancing up at her and frowning. “He’s in a state of unconsciousness.”
“What’s happened? Why is he like this?”
“We can’t say just yet.” The doctor wraps fresh gauze around Konstantin’s darkening hand.
“We?” Antonina repeats. “What do you mean? What can’t we say?” Does it take a very long time for these short phrases to come out, or is it just her drowsiness that makes her voice sound so dull and slow?
The doctor again looks up at her. “Countess Mitlovskiya, it’s too soon to predict. But should the fever continue …” He stops, tying the strip of gauze. “Has he been taking liquids? Has he been passing his water?”
Antonina sees that Konstantin has two spots of hectic colour on his unshaven cheeks. “I don’t know.”
“Neither,” Pavel says from the foot of the bed.
“Why not? Why have you not been giving him fluids?” the doctor asks the servant.
“I have tried, sir, many times. But he won’t drink.”
“Won’t? Come now,” the doctor says sharply. “Are you so incapable of a simple task?”
At the annoyed tone of his voice, Antonina’s head clears a little. She knows how devoted Pavel is to Konstantin; he’s been his manservant for over twenty years, long before she came to Angelkov. He has not left Konstantin’s side the last few nights. And now this doctor is speaking to the elderly man as though he were a child, rebuking him for his lack of duty.
She would like a cup of hot sweet tea. “You attempt, then, Dr. Molov,” she says. “You try to force open his lips and make him swallow.”
The doctor frowns at her. “Countess, I only stress how important it is, in the case of blood poisoning, to—”
“Blood poisoning?” Antonina rubs her forehead. “You didn’t say this.”
“I’ve done what I can for now.” He stands. “I have commitments today, but will return tomorrow. It’s most important that Count Mitlovsky have fluids. This will flush out the poison, countess.”
The doctor closes his bag and then says, in a kinder voice, “Surely your son will be returned. It’s a time of great instability: the Emancipation Manifesto has thrown the country into chaos. Nobody understands what it will mean. The serfs … the newly freed people, haven’t yet been told how they’ll be affected, or how to deal with their freedom. There’s fear, confusion and too many rumours. There have even been some minor uprisings on other estates. The thugs who kidnapped your son will soon realize …” He stops.
Antonina waits. Although more focused now, she still feels as though she’s stepping out of a strange twilight. “Will realize what?” she finally asks.
The doctor opens his bag again, taking out a small square
bottle. “Laudanum, countess. It will help you cope for the moment. It’s better than—I believe it will help you.” He turns to Pavel. “Force fluids into him as best you can, and keep bathing him in cool water to bring down the fever.” He picks up his bag, nods to Antonina and is gone.
Antonina lowers herself into the wide leather chair. She closes her eyes and puts her head back, exhausted, although she has done nothing more than walk down the hall and listen to the doctor.