It is the morning of the Spring Blossom Ball and — while it it is true that I may yet snap an ankle waltzing in the dress rehearsal, or be visited by a mysterious and disfiguring and perhaps even foul-smelling disease that renders me unfit to be seen in public — it seems increasingly likely I will be forced to make my debut into society this evening. For now, I sit in the Birch Forest Tea Room and squint through a haze of smoke: it comes in fat clouds from the men’s cigars and in thin ribbons from the ladies cigarettes at the ends of their silver holders and it wreathes the chandeliers that bob overhead. The walls here are lined with mirrors reflecting the smoke and the steam from the samovars and the white-jacketed waiters that steer cake trolleys between the cramped tables. Each mirror finds its reflection thrown back once more by the mirrors opposite and in this way the smoke and steam and tables and trolleys seem to stretch out to infinity, and the Birch Forest Tea Room to contain the whole world. And at the centre of the world, across the table from me is Anastasia with her fork forgotten halfway to her mouth, a green square of pine jelly wobbling atop it.
“Again?” she asks. I nod, enjoying the note of panic I hear in her voice. “M. Palanquin has changed your talent for the third time?” I slide my fingernail between a sugar-crusted cake and its wrapper. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” she says as I lift the cake up and, all at once, into my mouth, “but perhaps you could tell me exactly what happened — no, swallow first Olga!” she cries and then, under her breath, “it will be a small miracle if you don’t disgrace yourself tonight.” She turns to Mira, who is absorbed in drumming out the tune she hears in her head by kicking her heels against the legs of her chair, and she slides the dish of pine jelly over the table. “Mira, darling,” she says, “if you stop that dreadful noise, you may have the rest of my jelly.”
“You don’t want it?” asks Mira. “I find,” she says, “I have lost my appetite.” I finish the cake and lick the grains of sugar that have collected there from my top lip.
Anastasia lifts one perfectly painted on eyebrow and waits. “Well,” I begin, “M. Palanquin always says the best talent for plain and grrrraceless —,” I roll my r’s, in the same way M. Palanquin does, “— girls is epic poetry. But after my recitation of ‘The Clouds Were Stained with Blood: A Sonnet in Memory of the War in the Skies’ he was forced to reconsider. He said the sheer pleasure I appeared to take over the most grrrrruesome parts was extremely unrrrrrefined.”
“Yes, but I thought you’d settled on lock-picking.”
“Unfortunately, Evgenia Kokoschka has revealed herself to be quite adept at lock- picking. M. Palanquin says that my feeble attempts to unpick a basic hinge-lock cannot fail to fall flat after the guests have just seen Evgenia unpick a series of pin-and-tumbler locks, each one smaller than the last, and all the while wearing a blindfold. And so my talent is to be Tasseomancy.”
Anastasia breathes in sharply. “Tea-reading?”
“Not tea reading,” I correct, “tasseomancy.”
She presses her fingers to either side of the delicate bridge of her nose and lets out a sigh. “Remind me, Olga, what part you are to play in the Grand Procession?”
The Grand Procession, in which the Spring Blossoms — or debutantes — make their entrance into the palace’s suite of ballrooms, has a different theme every year and every year the Spring Blossoms are costumed accordingly. This year, being the 40th anniversary of Queen Ekaterina’s ascension to the throne, M. Palanquin has conceived of the Grand Procession as a tribute to the achievements of Queen Ekaterina’s reign. Natasha, for example, is to be dressed — in equal parts pearl-pale silk and plaster of Paris — as a Doric Column, in tribute to Queen Ekaterina’s architectural achievements. Albina, her hair studded with seashells, wearing frothy blue satin, and with a gold sextant tucked under one arm, will show the advancements in oceanography Queen Ekaterina’s Maritime Ministry has made. And I am to be —
“A tractor axle,” I tell Anastasia. “I represent all the innovations in agricultural technology that Queen Ekaterina has made possible and I’m to wear a tiara of nuts and bolts.”
“And exactly how does M. Palanquin think I’m going to maneuver a respectable match for a girl who makes her debut dressed as a tractor treadle — ,”
“Axle,” I tell her.
“ — and whose only talent consists of staring into the bottoms of dirty teacups?”
“I couldn’t care less about making a match. I’d dress like a pile of compost and divine the future using sheep’s entrails if it meant I wouldn’t make a good match.” Anastasia looks like she might, for a moment, have forgotten the role she usually plays with aplomb — doting stepmother to two adoring children, even if one of them, the too- tall too-plump one with dark hair and a darker expression, presently reaching for her third cake, is horribly miscast.
“Olga’s only joking, Mama,” says Mira and Anastasia quickly remembers herself.
“Of course she is darling,” she says and she turns to me. “Oh Olga,” speaking in a sweet voice, staring at me with cold hard eyes, “Olga you are too funny.”
And she laughs, tilting her head back and making her throat long and showing glints of teeth, laughing in such a way that people sitting at the tables near us turn to look and then turn back to each other saying things like, “Do you think that’s — ?” and “Isn’t she — ?”
Listening to these whispers, Anastasia smiles again — a private smile this time, one that she keeps to herself.
A trolley slides past and the waiter pushing it slides past behind as if he too has wheels instead of feet until, noticing our empty cups, he stops.
“Leave them!” says Anastasia sharply and the waiter draws his hand back, confused. “Olga is making her debut at tonight’s Spring Blossom Ball,” she explains, “and her talent is to be tasseomancy.”
He looks at her blankly.
“Tea reading,” she snaps and after the waiter slides away she pushes the dirty cups across the table. “Well,” she says, “go on.”
“I’ll do Mira first,” I say and Mira puts down her spoon, turns to face me. I take the cup in my left hand and, per M. Palanquin’s instructions, try to allow an expression both mysterious and attractive to come over my face.
“Are you feeling alright, Olga?” Mira asks. “You look ill all of a sudden.”
“I’m fine,” I say, “quite fine.” I bring the cup close to my face and inspect the wet leaves clumped there. “I see,” I say at last, “curtains. Thick velvet curtains.”
Mira comes forward in her chair. “Like in the Mariinsky theatre?”
“There is a performance in your future. Applause. A dressing room filled with bouquets.”
“Will I be a ballerina?” she asks. “Will I dance for Mr Diaghilev?”
To dance with Mr Diaghilev and his company was Mira’s dearest wish and I saw no harm in indulging it. I swirl the cup again. “I see,” I say, “a hat. A tall hat, like a top hat, though what it could possibly mean — ,”
“But Mr Diaghilev wears a top hat,” she crows.
“Now mine,” says Anastasia and I reach for her cup at the same time Mira snatches her own away, to better see the velvet curtains and the top hat swimming at its bottom. I swirl Anastasia’s cup the same way I swirled Mira’s, only I abandon my mysteriously attractive expression. Then I look at the leaves. There is no shape I can make out in them. I swirl the cup again but still the leaves refuse to resolve themselves into any kind of picture.
“Well?” asks Anastasia.
“Well — I can’t see anything.”
“Of course you can see something,” she says and laughs but it is an anxious laugh. Anastasia still clings to the superstitions of her childhood — she never wears new shoes on a Wednesday and she once sacked a maid for leaving the bread knife sticking out of a loaf. She sets great store by omens, and fortune tellers, and Baba Iagas. I swirl the cup for a third time.
“’I see —,” but there is still nothing. The leaves, settled in a thick veil, seem to be obscuring rather than revealing something.
And then the cup turns cold to the touch, like a thing made of ice and not of bone china, and it chills my fingers. I drop it back into its saucer. “I see snow,” I tell Anastasia, flexing my fingers to bring the blood back into them, “falling cold and heavy and covering over everything.”
Anastasia pinches her lips together and signals to the waiter that he may now come and clear the table. “Snow,” she says to herself. “The first day of spring and this — this — this salt-pickled mackerel sees snow.”
In the foyer of the Birch Forest Tea Room, Anastasia hands our coat check tickets to the attendant who is much too absorbed in the book he is reading under the counter to notice. A corner — a cheap cardboard corner, celery green — of its cover is visible from where we stand. I recognise at once the particular green of the book’s cover, can tell just by looking at it how it feels to the touch— thin like onion skin, sweaty if you keep it between your fingers too long.
“Which one are you reading?” I ask.
The attendant starts then folds his hands so they hide the book. “Which one of what, Miss?”
“Which one of Londonov’s books are you reading?”
“Ah,” he says and he lowers his voice, “it’s Turnipshka and the Race Against Time.”
“’That’s one of my favourites,” I tell him and it is — it’s the one where Turnipshka steals the hour between two and three o’clock in the afternoon from a crotchety, long-legged watchmaker, who chases Turnipshka and Snow-cat all over the country — leaping and springing over fields and rivers and mountains — trying to get it back.
“Have you ever read Turnipsh — ,” I begin, but the look I get from Anastasia silences me. Anastasia will never understand why I love Boris Londonov so much and she certainly doesn’t approve of my reading him. “Aren’t plain and difficult girls,” I once overheard her complaining to Father, “supposed to distinguish themselves in society through their academic accomplishments, by speaking French, by reading literature? And instead she devotes her life to reading the sort of book that costs 25 kopecks, the sort of book you could buy from a — from a train station?”
Now, Anastasia is tapping her fingers meaningfully on the counter and the attendant springs up to fetch our coats. “Two navy serge and one mink,” she calls after him and then, “Mink, I said!” when his hand hovers over an inferior fur. Then, having allowed herself to be helped into her own coat and without waiting for either Mira or I as we struggle into our sleeves, she flounces out the revolving doors of the Birch Forest Tea Room and into the street.
The trees that line Avenue Tsentro are studded with slimy new buds and early flowers, but our warm breath still mists the air. Workmen hurry past us carrying ladders and garlands — garlands of green leaves and early radishes and strawberries so small and pale they are almost white — ready to hang in honour of the Spring Blossom Ball and the beginning of the Season; and people on their way to and from work go past as well, carrying newspapers or holding their hats fast to the crowns of their heads. A little way down from where we stand a woman sells oranges out of a battered brown suitcase and diagonally across the road is Komorov with his famous White Mice Choir. The mice, twelve in all, are tied together with a length of blue satin ribbon and Komorov stands behind them, coaxing them to sing with the aid of a cheese rind he dangles above them — lifting the rind higher when the tune rises up the scale.
“Oh, where is Kaprov,” says Anastasia, turning up her coat collar and scanning the street. “We’ve been waiting close to a minute and a half!”
And there he is, on cue, steering down the frost-slicked street. Anastasia steps out in a swish of mink and perfume. People stare and not in a subtle out-the-corner-of-their-eyes kind of way, either. A girl peeling an orange stops with her fingers sunk in the pith and her mouth open. Komorov forgets the cheese rind dangling from his fingers. One of the mice takes it in his paws and the rest fall on it hungrily as Komorov watches Anastasia’s progress into the car. Mira goes next and I go after and I can see through the glass that the crowd are still staring, will keep staring, until Anastasia is gone from view.
I understand why they stare. They stare at her expensive clothes, her jewellery. At her hair, sometimes brown and sometimes red and shiny as a mirror. And at her familiar face — all lips and eyes and flickering expression. The kind of face — as Boris Lavrov, head producer at Studio Kino-Otleechno knew the first time he saw it — the kind of face made to be plastered six foot high on a movie poster. Mr Lavrov discovered Anastasia Krasnoyarska — or, to use her real name, Olenka Kravchuk — when he was passing through the small fishing town Molodizhne on his way to take the waters in Odessa. Olenka lived then in a one- room wooden house that, even though it was built on stilts, still saw water rising over the floorboards when the moon was very full and the tide was very high, and she went out every day to catch wrasse and blenny in the nets that trailed behind her Father’s fishing boat. Olenka was fifteen and a half when Mr Lavrov first saw her, ashore, gutting her share of the day’s catch: tearing delicate fish-spines out in one quick movement with her left hand and catching their still-pulsing guts in the outstretched fingers of her right. It was easy enough to scrub away the scales and the fish-smell that had settled on her skin to make her into the greatest movie star of Tsaretsvo’s silent age, but harder to scrub away the guttural vowels and glottal stops of her Molodizhnean accent. Which is why she found herself suddenly out of contract when, a full nine years behind Hollywood, Studio Kino-Otleechno announced they would be adopting the latest stereophonic sound technology, and why Anastasia’s celebrated lips still turn tight whenever she passes the face of another actress — Olga Chekhova, or maybe Valentina Tereshkova — plastered six foot high across the wall of a Kino-Teatr.
We are nearly halfway to the Palace when Anastasia checks her wristwatch, mutters to herself, “Time enough,” and signals for Kaprov to stop. “We won’t be gone long,” she tells him as she hurries Mira and I out onto the street.
“But where are we — ?” I begin.
“To get you a good luck charm,” she says. “You’re going to need all the luck you can get, tonight. There’s an Auto-Iaga on the corner, if I remember correctly.”
Usually, I like the Auto-Iaga. But having hoped all day for a well-timed stroke of bad luck, something — anything — to get me out of the Ball, the very last thing I need is a good luck charm. I follow Anastasia very slowly, dragging my feet along the footpath and stopping every few paces to admire the new scuff marks I have made on my kid-leather boots. Anastasia stops at a narrow door in between a milliners and a printing press. Pink paint comes away from the door in flakes and there hangs, at eye level, a plaque. This Auto-Iaga, the plaque reads, Authorised and Guaranteed by the Hon. Marina Rudova, Imperial Ministry for Tradition and Superstition. The door is unlocked and it swings open when Anastasia pushes it. Up a short flight of stairs is the AutoIaga: a beautiful clockwork doll, not quite the size of a grown person, with a slot in her shiny pink tongue just large enough to accommodate a 50 kopeck piece. Anastasia fumbles a while with her purse, finally extracts a coin and places it in the slot.
A whirring sound starts in the doll’s stomach. “Please, choose your magic” says the Auto-Iaga and her left hand rotates to face us, showing three buttons carved into her palm. One is labelled “Love,” the second, “Luck,” and the last “Dark Arts.” I glare at Anastasia, and then at the buttons, and then back at Anastasia again, who gives me a smart shove between the shoulder-blades that sends me stumbling toward the Auto-Iaga. With one last and especially dark look back over my shoulder, I press the second button.
Now, the Auto-Iaga’s right hand rotates to face us. Engraved here, very tiny, are the letters of the alphabet. I bend over the letters and start typing.
When I straighten up, the Auto-Iaga’s palms are returned, squeaking, to their original positions. The narrow room fills with pine-scented smoke that sets me off coughing. When the smoke subsides it reveals a blue envelope on a wire dangling from the ceiling. “Go on,” says Anastasia so I take the envelope from its hook and open it. Inside is a sheet of notepaper — also blue — which reads as follows: THIS Good Luck Charm HEREBY OFFICIALLY PROVIDES THE UNDERSIGNED SUPPLICANT (Olga Golovnina) WITH Good Luck FOR THE PURPOSE/ DURATION OF The Spring Blossom Ball CERTIFIED BY The Hon. Marina Rudova (Ministry for Superstition and Tradition) AND RATIFIED BY — and here is a space for me to sign my name, which I do with the red plastic pen that I always carry in my pocket.
“Now hurry,” says Anastasia, consulting her watch once more, “or we’ll be late to the rehearsal.”
I stuff the blue envelope inside my jacket and I follow her downstairs.
The palace, pastel domes balancing on tapered towers, looks spun from sugar but before I can put out a hand to check it is, in fact, stone, we are ushered into the Reception Hall. Here the walls are barnacled with gold-leaf and precious stones and the other Spring Blossoms, with attendant mothers and sisters and aunts, gather at the foot of a broad staircase. I slip through the crowds, stepping quite hard on Jelena Dolinski’s foot as I go — accidentally, of course, though she should have thought twice before laughing with Albina about how I went cross- eyed when I stared into my teacup — and come to a stop by Evgenia, who clutches a drawstring velvet pouch. Her lock picks rattle inside it as she shifts her weight from one foot to the other.
At the top of the staircase, waving his hands about to signal for silence is M. Palanquin, a tall thin man who wears his hair slicked close to his scalp — when he walks near me I can see the tooth-marks his comb leaves in his hair and smell the over-strong scent of his violet pomade.
“Ladies,” he begins, “or rather, Spring Blossoms! I need hardly remind you that your reception into society, your romantic prospects — in short, your entire future happiness — all depend on your comportment this evening. You know, by now, your place in the procession, your talent, your dance steps. Or at least,” his eyes find me in the crowd and he holds me in his gaze, “or at least you should know all these things. So today we will concentrate only on grace! On posture! And on charrrrrm!”
He turns on his heel.
The carpet covering the stairs is so thick and so soft our footsteps, as we follow him up the stairs, make no sound at all.
Trees tower over me and the bear is so close I can feel his hot breathing. Snapping bark and pine needles underfoot, the bear and I dance. Two steps to the left, then hop and kick. Two steps to the right, hop, hop, turn.
M. Palanquin moves through the trees, clapping in time with the steps. “Hop lightly!” he calls between his clapping, “Lightly!” And when he walks past me he stops. “The bears,” he hisses, “should not have lighter feet than the Blossoms!”
The rehearsal is nearly over. We have already rehearsed the Grand Procession, in which I only tripped over my hem four times, and our talents, where the tea leaves revealed to me a sudden and terrible outbreak of pimples in Jelena Dolinski’s immediate future. And now only the Medved-Valz, where each Spring Blossom is partnered with one of Queen Ekaterina’s court bears, remains. The Medved-Valz is held in Queen Ekaterina’s Forest Ballroom, where the floor is moss and trees grow inside, so that the ballroom’s glass ceiling can hardly be seen through its leaves. The forest still wears a wintry look now and gardeners work around us as we dance, dusting the last of the snow from the branches and clearing crusted frost from the floor.
Tonight, after the Medved-Valz, will come drinking and more dancing and after that — at least, as Anastasia takes such pains to remind me, for Blossoms who don’t disgrace themselves — a season’s worth of invitations falling through the letterbox tomorrow morning. Two steps to the left, then hop, then kick. Two steps to the right —The bear, Igor, makes a low rolling sound at the back of his throat, a sound I have come to recognise as the ursine equivalent of a disappointed sigh.
“If I may, Miss Golovnina — ,” he begins.
“It’s two steps to the right then hop, hop. Two little hops, falling like raindrops. Not one big hop, like — ,” He looks down at my feet, swelling out of the satin dancing shoes I’ve borrowed from Anastasia.
“’I’m sorry Igor — I’m too distracted by all this to pay attention to the steps.”
“All this? Nerves, you mean?”
“No — all this. I’ve never been in the Forest Ballroom before and it’s just — I mean, it’s so — is this what it’s really like? The real forest, I mean?”
“’The Poliakoffs,” says Igor, “have been court bears for generations. My great-grandfather remembered dancing with the Dowager Queen Vanna, and my great-uncle Sasha partnered Queen Ekaterina when she herself was a Spring Blossom. I’m not a wild bear, Miss Golovnina. I don’t speak Medved or walk on all fours and I’ve certainly never been closer to the real forest than you have.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” I say, “I was only wondering — ,”
And here I miss my turn and instead of kicking and bowing to my right I veer to my left and smack into a tree branch.
“The object of the Medved-Valz, Olga,” booms M. Palanquin, “is to dance through the trees rather than into them.”
Igor doubles back and catches my hand in his paw. “Perhaps Miss Golovnina,” he says, softening, “if you concentrate a little more on your footwork and a little less on your surroundings — ,” I nod and, ignoring the muffled laughter of the girls around me, begin again. I haven’t been dancing long when M. Palanquin interrupts us once more. The band has arrived after their long drive from the North. They come through the trees, holding their instruments close to themselves. They wear thick coats and fur-lined boots and the women — of which there are two, one not much older than me, and the other turned small and bent by age — wear their hair plainly, letting it fall down their backs.
“Bears!” says M. Palanquin, “Blossoms! When you have returned to your places we will begin the dance once more and this time with the proper accompaniment!”
With the deep plunking of the balalaika and the thump of boots against the floor, the dance starts to make sense to me, though my feet still come down hard on Igor’s paws every few beats. Mira, I see as I spin past her, has started up from her seat at the side of the ballroom and despite Anastasia’s efforts to pull her back down, she is dancing in her own Mira-ish way. Her dancing doesn’t come from learning steps — it comes from somewhere deep within her, from her bones. Her eyes are closed and she springs high into the air and stays suspended there so long she looks as if she is flying.
And then the band falls silent. The old woman steps out and into the centre of the ballroom’s green floor. She cups her hands and blows between her fingers, producing at first only a dry rattling sound. But then the sound thickens and sweetens and soon it is a whistle, swooping and soaring above our heads almost exactly the way I imagine a —
“Is that supposed to be — ?’ I whisper to Igor. He nods. “But,” I press, “is it very much like — ?”
“The Poliakoffs have been court bears for generations,” he reminds me, but more sad than proud this time, “so I have no way to know.”
JESSICA MILLER is a children’s writer and PhD student from Brisbane, Australia, who is currently based in Southern Germany. She was a part of SLS’s program in Lithuania in 2014.