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Russian Winter

By Leslie Stevens,2014-11-04 18:42
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When she decides to auction her remarkable jewellery collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has drawn a curtain on her past. Instead she finds herself over whelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events that changed the course of her life half a century before.It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theatre; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions, Gersh, a dangerously irreverent composer, and the exquisite Vera became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia where a terrible discovery led to a deadly act of betrayal. Now living in Boston, Nina has hidden her dark secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an in quisitive young Published by Arrow on 2011/02/15

A Novel

Russian Winter

Daphne Kalotay

FOR MAMUKA

AND IN MEMORY OF IMRE AND BAMBI FARKASS

    It was then that I first came to know that love is not merely a source of joy or a game, butpart of the ceaseless tragedy of life, both its eternal curse and the overwhelming force thatgives it meaning.

    —Nadezhda Mandelstam

    Her husband had archaic ideas about jewels; a man bought them for his wife in acknowledgment ofthings he could not gracefully utter.

    —Willa Cather

    Contents Epigraph Book I Chapter One The afternoon was so cold, so relentlessly gray, few pedestrians… Chapter Two It is decided—in that silent, abrupt way that adults make… Chapter Three Again the phone was ringing. First it had been the… Chapter Four Ensconced on her sofa, in the corner closest to the… Chapter Five Good god, Carla,” Grigori said, entering the Department of Foreign… Chapter Six In the dream the letter arrived by special delivery, a… Chapter Seven Evelyn leaned her head in around six o’clock, her blond… Chapter Eight In the wee hours of Monday morning, the blizzard that… Book II Chapter Nine In his mailbox in the Department of Foreign Languages, Grigori… Chapter Ten Mounting the steep steps of the Department of Foreign Languages,… Chapter Eleven For a few years, first in Norway and then in… Chapter Twelve The mail that afternoon contained a letter from Shepley. He… Chapter Thirteen Cynthia went right back to the catalog the next evening,… Chapter Fourteen The days just before an auction were always stressful, the… Book III Chapter Fifteen At first Maria thought she was the only one who… Chapter Sixteen It wasn’t until she arrived at work that she realized… Author’s Note and Sources Acknowledgments About the Author Other Books by Daphne Kalotay Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

    BOOK I

    LOT 7

    Diamond Earstuds. Each 4-prong-set with a round brilliant-cut diamond weighing approx. 1.64 and1.61 cts., color and clarity H/VS2, 18kt white gold mounts, Russian hallmarks. $20,000–22,000

    CHAPTER ONE

    The afternoon was so cold, so relentlessly gray, few pedestrians passed the long island oftrees dividing Commonwealth Avenue, and even little dogs, shunted along impatiently, worethermal coats and offended expressions. From a third-floor window on the north side of thestreet, above decorative copper balconies that had long ago turned the color of pale mint, NinaRevskaya surveyed the scene. Soon the sun—what little there was of it—would abandon itsdismal effort, and all along this strip of well-kept brownstones, streetlamps would glowdemurely.

    Nina tried to lean closer, to better glimpse the sidewalk below, but the tightness in her neckseized again. Since her chair could not move any nearer, she bore the pain and leaned closerstill. Her breath left patches of fog on the glass. She hoped to spot her visitor ahead oftime, so as to better prepare herself.

    Cold rose to her cheeks. Here came someone, but no, it was a woman, and too young. Her bootheels made a lonely clop-clop sound. Now the woman paused, seemed to be searching for anaddress. Nina lost sight of her as she approached the door of the building. Surely thiscouldn’t be right—though now the doorbell buzzed. Stiff-backed in her wheelchair, Nina rolledslowly away from the window. In the foyer, frowning, she pressed the intercom. “Yes?”

    “Drew Brooks, from Beller.”

    These American girls, going around with men’s names.

    “Do come up.” Though aware of her accent, and of the cracking in her voice, Nina was alwaysshocked to hear it. In her mind, in her thoughts, her words were always bright and clear. Sherolled forward to unlatch and open the door, and listened for the elevator. But it was mountingfootsteps that grew louder, closer, until they became “Drew,” in a slim wool coat, her cheeksrosy from cold, a leather satchel hanging from a strap diagonally across her shoulder. She wasof good height, with a posture of self-respect, and thrust out her hand, still gloved.

    It has begun, Nina thought, with a slight drop of her heart; I have begun it. Knuckles wincing,she briefly grasped the outstretched hand. “Please come in.”

    “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Revskaya.”

    Miz, as if she were a secretary. “You may call me Nina.”

    “Nina, hello.” The girl gave a surprisingly confident smile, and creases fanned out frombeside her eyes; Nina saw she was older than she had first thought. Her eyelashes were dark,her auburn hair tucked loosely behind her ears. “Lenore, our director of fine jewelry, is verysorry that she can’t be here,” she was saying, removing her gloves. “Both her children camedown with something.”

    “You may put here your coat.”

    The girl extracted herself from her coat to reveal a short skirt and a fitted high-neckedsweater. Nina assessed the short skirt, the long legs, the low boots and pale tights.Impractical, showing off her legs in weather like this. And yet Nina approved. Though mostpeople knew the phrase “Suffer for beauty,” few truly embraced it.

    “We will sit in the salon.” Nina turned her wheelchair, and a current of pain shot throughher kneecaps. It was always like this, the pain, sudden and indiscriminate. “Please have aseat.”

    The girl sat down and crossed her legs in their thin tights.

    Suffer for beauty. It was one of the truer maxims, which Nina had lived to the fullest, dancingon sprained toes and rheumatic hips, through pneumonia and fever. And as a young woman in Parisand then London, she had of course served time in finicky gowns and treacherous heels, and inthe 1960s those hopelessly scratchy skirt suits that seemed to be made of furniture upholstery.In 1978 she had undergone what was known as a “mini facelift.” Really it was just a fewstitches behind the ears—so minor, in fact, that on the day that she was to have the stitches

    removed, it had occurred to her that she might as well do it herself. And she had, with amagnifying mirror and a tiny pair of pointy nail scissors.

    Smoothing her skirt, the girl removed invisible lint with a light, flitting hand. Petersburgairs, Nina’s grandmother used to call them, these little feminine adjustments. Now the girlreached inside her satchel to pull out a clipboard with a leather cover. Wide cheekbones, fairskin, brown eyes flecked with green. Something about her was familiar, though not in any goodway. “I’m here to compose a basic list. Our appraisers will take it from there.”

    Nina gave a small nod, and the knot at the base of her neck tightened: at times this knotseemed to be the very heart of her illness. “Yes, of course,” she said, and the effort madethe pain briefly stronger.

    Opening the clipboard, the girl said, “I have all sorts of things I’d love to ask you—thoughI’ll try to keep it to the business at hand. I love the ballet. I wish I could have seen youdance.”

    “There is no need to flatter me.”

    The girl raised an eyebrow. “I was reading about you, how they called you ‘the Butterfly.’”

    “One of the Moscow papers was calling me that,” Nina heard herself snap. “I dislike it.”For one thing, the image wasn’t quite accurate, the way it made her seem, weak and fluttery, arose petal blown about in the air. “It is too…sweet.”

    The girl gave a winking look that seemed to agree, and Nina felt the surprise of her coldnesshaving been acknowledged. “I’ve noticed the butterfly motif in some of your jewelry,” thegirl said. “I looked back at the list from the St. Botolph’s exhibit. I thought that mightmake our work today simpler. We’ll go through the St. Botolph’s list”—she indicated thepages in the grip of the clipboard—“and you can let me know which ones you’d like to auctionand which ones you might be keeping, if any.”

    “That is fine.” The knot in her neck twinged. In truth she possessed something close toaffection for this horrible knot, which at first had been just another unrelenting pain. Butthen one day, only a few months ago, Nina happened to recall the way her grandmother used totie her winter scarf for her, back in Moscow, when she was still too young to do it herself:knotted at the back, to easily grab at if she tried to run off. The memory, which Nina had notalighted on for a good fifty years, was a balm, a salve, a gift long ago lost and returned atlast. Now whenever Nina suffered the pain there, she told herself that it was the knot in herold wool scarf, and that her grandmother’s hands had tied it, and then the pain, though noless severe, was at least not a bad one.

    The girl was already handing her the clipboard. Nina took it with shaking hands, as the girlsaid, conversationally, “I’m actually one-quarter Russian, myself.” When Nina did notrespond, she added, “My grandfather came from there.”

    Nina chose to ignore this. Her Russian life was so very distant, the person she had been thenso separate from the one she had become. She set the clipboard on her lap and frowned at it.

    In a more confidential tone, the girl asked, “What inspired you to put them up for auction?”

    Nina hoped her voice would not shake. “I want to direct the income where I like, during mylifetime. I am almost eighty, you know. As I have said to you, all proceeds shall go to theBoston Ballet Foundation.” She kept her eyes down, focused on the clipboard, wondering if herstiffness hid her emotions. Because it all felt wrong now, a rash decision. The wrongness had

    she should be the one to sift through Nina’s treasures.to do with this girl, somehow, that

    Those primly confident hands.

    “Well, these pieces are sure to bring in a good sum,” the girl said. “Especially if youallow us to publish that they’re from your collection.” Her face was hopeful. “Our auctionsare always anonymous, of course, but in high-profile cases like this, it often pays to make itpublic. I imagine Lenore mentioned that to you. Even the less valuable items can fetch a goodprice that way. Not that we need to include keepsakes, too, but—”

“Take them.”

    The girl angled her head at Nina, as if in reassessment. She seemed to have noticed something,and Nina felt her pulse begin to race. But the girl simply sat up a bit straighter and said,“The very fact that they’re yours would bring in so many more potential bidders. And there’sof course the added allure that some of these pieces were smuggled out of Soviet Russia. Inlife-or-death circumstances.”

    Here it came, as it always did, the part of the conversation where Nina would be molded intothat brave old woman, the one who had escaped oppression and defied her government in thepursuit of artistic freedom. It always happened this way; she started out an artist and endedup a symbol.

    “When you escaped, I mean.”

    Those soulful brown eyes. Again Nina breathed a whiff of the past, the recollection of…what?Something unpleasant. A faint anger rose inside her. “People think I fled Russia to escapecommunism. Really I was escaping my mother-in-law.”

    The girl seemed to think Nina was joking. The creases showed again beside her eyes as her mouthpressed into a conspiratorial smile. Dark lashes, broad cheekbones, the wise arch of hereyebrows…It came to Nina in a swift, clear vision: that luminous face, and the shivering waveof her arms, a delicate ripple of muscle as she drifted across the stage.

    “Is there a…problem?”

    Nina flinched. The girl from Beller was watching her intently, so that Nina wondered if she hadbeen staring. Taking a breath to collect herself, she said, “You remind me of a friend I had.Someone from a long time ago.”

    The girl looked pleased, as if any comparison with the past must be a flattering one. She dealtin antiques, after all. Soon she was discussing the St. Botolph’s list with a briskprofessionalism that whisked Nina past any tug of emotion, any last-minute regrets. Still, itfelt like a long time until the girl finally donned her coat and went tromping confidently downthe stairs, her inventory pressed tightly between the covers of the clipboard.

    ?

    WARM MOSCOW MORNING, early June, school will soon be ending. “Can’t you sit still?” A yankat the top of Nina’s head, prickling tips of a comb on her part. The question is purelyrhetorical. Nina learned to run as soon as she could walk and never tires of hopping from stepto step in the dark stairwell of their building. She can cross the courtyard corner to cornerin a series of leaps. “Stop fidgeting.” But Nina swings her legs and taps her heels againsteach other, as Mother’s fingers, precise as a surgeon’s, briskly weave her own hope, her owndreams, into two tight plaits. Nina can feel her mother’s hope folded into them, the tremor ofquick fingers, and rapid heartbeats through the thin fabric of her blouse. Today is of too muchimportance to allow Nina’s grandmother, with her poor eyesight and sloppily knottedheadkerchief, to fiddle with her hair. At last the braids are done, looped up onto the top ofher head and fastened with a big new bow to secure all the hopes and dreams inside. Nina’sscalp aches.

    Vera too, when they meet in the courtyard, has new ribbons in her hair. Strong gusts of windflop them back and forth and worry the morning glories on the sagging balconies. In mere daysthe weather has gone from a cold drizzle to so hot and dry that Nina can’t help beingconcerned about the dust, that it will ruin the cotton dress Mother has sewn for her. Vera’sgrandmother, dark eyes glowering from below a white headkerchief, keeps frowning and pullingVera close to her. Like all grandmothers, she is permanently displeased, calls Gorky Street“Tverskaya,” and gripes loudly about things no one else dares lament even in a whisper. Theskin of her face is all tiny broken lines, like the top layer of ice when you step on it forthe first time.

    “We were up very late last night,” Vera confides to Nina. The way she says it suggests Ninaought not ask why.

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