The day had arrived. The strangest honeymoon hotel in history was ready. Its completion—so quick! one month—had required the labor of a thousand serfs. If this ice palace didn’t signal to the world that Russia was a force to be reckoned with, nothing would.
None of the royal staff had seen it yet. They had only heard about it. They had heard how it was made exclusively from blocks of the iced-over Neva River, glued together with water, so that it appeared to be sculpted out of one massive cube. It measured nine-hundred-and-eighty square feet in area and twenty-one feet tall. It contained two rooms—a living room and a bedroom, with chairs and tables and a bed and dresser made of ice. Accessories, too: a mirror, and pillows, and blankets, all carved out of ice. It even had a tiny bathhouse annex, in the style of a log cabin. Outside it were ice cannons which, loaded with gunpowder, could shoot ice cannonballs a distance of sixty paces, and an ice elephant connected by pipes to the nearby canal, so that it could spout water twenty-four feet in the air. At night, the staff heard, it would spout flaming oil.
And this was the place where Avdotya, the Empress Anna’s favorite lady-in-waiting—forty years old, hunchbacked, intelligent, ill-favored—would spend her wedding night.
The Empress was famously cruel and capricious, but she had always borne what she called a soft spot for the institution of marriage. Her own marriage, twenty-five years before, had lasted no more than two months, her eighteen-year-old husband having succumbed to alcohol poisoning after a night of competitive drinking with Anna’s uncle Peter the Great. Anna had spent the next two decades in exile in her late husband’s homeland, the duchy of Courland. But long after she had been called back to Russia to take up the crown, she continued to reminisce about the wonders of her nuptial celebrations. She could be brought to snuffling tears remembering how on the first night of the wedding banquet, servants had wheeled in two enormous meat pies, like two camel humps; how Peter had whipped out his dagger and dragged a slash down the middle of one and then the other; and how immediately out of each one had sprung a dwarf—one man, one woman—clad in blue velvet pantaloons and red silk blouses with ruffles. The dwarf couple had danced a minuet upon the wheeled table and then, the next night, had themselves been married in a miniature mirror of Anna’s own wedding.
It was one of the most charming things Anna had ever witnessed, and she often expressed her desire to bring about another mock wedding, if only she could happen upon just the right couple.
One dusky afternoon during the coldest winter in anyone’s memory, Avdotya was the only one left in Anna’s chamber after the other ladies had fled that freezing cavern. The only reason that Avdotya’s fingertips had not yet turned blue was that she had been given the favored seat, nearest the fire, directly across from Anna, whose massive bulk was buried under a pile of blankets on her divan.
Avdotya was of the Kalmyk people, a Mongol: a disdained minority. Her eyes were small, and her bony nose overhung fleshy lips. She had tiny feet, though, and graceful ways. She knew how to be quiet when needed and talkative when Anna was tired. She had been a palace maid before she became one of Anna’s ladies. With her face, and her hump, and her Mongol blood, she had learned early how to blend into the background to avoid becoming the object of jeers. Her family had given her a loving home, but they were poor, and she was obliged to leave it early to make her own way in an indifferent world.
And so she had done. She had served Anna for the past ten years, one of the hundreds of invisible cogs at court. Like the other ladies, she had a sleeping closet in the servants’ quarters: a square of court real estate all her own. A connecting door led to an adjoining closet, where her best friend, the palace maid Yelena Sergeyevna, slept. Yelena—Lena—was fifteen years younger and possessed of a slyly cheerful temperament; she balanced Avdotya’s gloomier moods. Together, they set out water and scraps for an orange tabby cat who visited them.
Avdotya thus had something like a family, defined as those to whom you look forward to returning at the end of every day. And she had known enough loneliness in her life to feel grateful. Only in sleeping dreams did a wish for anything more—to see the world outside, to roam broader vistas—ever brush her eyelids. She would wake into what Lena called a brown study, feeling the after-print of arms around her waist and lights flashing past her eyes as if she were being whirled in a dance. From what could her mind have drawn such visions? She had never been within a mile of a ball, let alone been squired to one.
“You are quiet, my ugly, grateful poppet,” came Anna’s croak from within the hive of blankets. “Speak, I command you. But first, bring me my infusion.”
Avdotya was, indeed, grateful—grateful to herself, that is, for having laid out the tea things ahead of time and for already having put the kettle on the hob to boil. Swaddled in her own layers of woolen shawls, she hobbled over to fill the mug and carried it to Anna without spilling a drop.
Anna struggled to a sitting position. Avdotya waited until she saw the two cushiony white hands emerge from the mass of furs, fingers squirming like rain-bloated worms, before easing the cup into them.
“Speak!” said Anna again, when Avdotya had regained her stool by the ruler’s side. Anna always said that she could listen forever to Avdotya’s lovely speaking voice, a voice low and thrumming, as if ever on the verge of lament. “Tell me,” she went on, “what thoughts pass behind those slits of eyes. Do you sit at the window in these frigid days and dream of the buds of spring? You know what they say rises along with the sap!” She barked a laugh, spraying tea through her nose.
“Indeed, your Highness,” answered Avdotya, “spring will be most welcome after this harshest of winters. Certainly, our Lord seems set to test our mettle with this ice that topples the carriages and the air that shatters the glass. I hear that bottles of brandy have frozen in the noblemen’s halls and that Prince Babanin’s tropical birds have all expired in their cages.
“Alas, your Highness, as for me, the weather hardly matters. Without a husband, my life is like a hard frost in any season.”
The husband line. It was hardly the first time she had ever used it. A ritual utterance, part of the standard nonsense that so pleased Anna.
This time, though, was different.
“My little humpback,” said Anna, “do quiet your dulcet pipes for just one moment. An idea has entered my brain, and I desire silence to allow it to take the fullest and most pleasing shape. Aaaggghhh….” She trailed off into a long and satisfying gurgle.
Anna must have heard something in Avdotya’s tone, some new meaning she had not meant to put there. Anna kept sighing and giggling, while Avdotya went rigid with dread. A new and terrible weight hung in the cold air. Her heart was pounding, and the right side of her face flamed hot from the fire roaring behind the grate not four feet away. The rest of her, even under her woolen shawls, had broken out in goosebumps.
The only light in this high-ceilinged marble room flickered from a candelabra behind Anna’s divan. High in the wall behind that, between two tapestries, was the room’s single window, a round porthole showing nothing but a flat gray sky.
The idea that had entered Anna’s head was that Avdotya should be married to one of Anna’s jesters. And she knew just the one! Prince Kvasnik, Anna called him. She had bestowed on him a name to befit one of the roles she had given him at court, which was to carry around a bowl of the rooty brown kvass, Russians’ national soft drink.
Marriage had already wounded him. The gossip was that ten years before, Prince Kvasnik had lost a beloved first wife to illness. To get over his grief, he had taken a trip to Italy and there fell in love with an Italian woman whose gentleness and spiritual devotion were like his dead wife’s.
“He’s a bit of a sap, after all,” opined Lena. “Big drink of water.” She was a pale-browed slip of a thing, with a funny little voice and a lisp that made her sound especially conspiratorial. “Of course, one feels bad for him, but also, what an idiot. He meets this new lady and converts to Roman Catholicism to marry her. And then the fool returns here to Russia, thinking that no one’ll be the wiser.”
Better for his career if he had treated his lady love less honorably. The royal secret service soon found him out, and he was convicted of apostasy, his wife sent back to Italy. Anna’s punishment was to make him a court jester. In addition to the kvass-bearing, one of his duties was to sit on a nest of eggs in a reception room and cluck like a chicken.
Avdotya had never seen that, nor was she really acquainted with him, aside from knowing his real name, Mikhail Ivanovic, and the fact that he was a nobleman. He was fifty, tall and thin, with a bald spot, long graying hair, and sad eyes. In the afternoons, when Anna took her daily entertainment, Avdotya had watched from the sidelines as Prince Misha gamely cavorted with the other jesters, crawling on the floor or giving them rides on his back, trundling around like a drunken bear or, when Anna demanded it, punching and kicking and wrestling with the others in a battle royal, after which Avdotya often saw the jesters hunched in corners, sweating and sniffling and swabbing each other’s injuries.
Lena had long contrived to lurk in corners or at keyholes to learn whatever she could about that which was supposedly none of her business. It was she who informed Avdotya of the cabinet commission’s plans for the wedding.
“They’ve voted in favor of a house of ice,” she told Avdotya as they hunched together on Avdotya’s cot late one night several days after Anna’s brainwave. “It is the idea of the Fat One’s chamberlain. He says they want something audacious—something that will tell the world that Russia means to leave its mark.”
She squeezed Avdotya’s forearm, certainly in affection, perhaps equally as much in the urge to command Avdotya’s attention, which kept wandering in bewilderment.
“Avenka, dear,” said Lena, “they are saying that the wedding of a Kalmyk and a Catholic convert, celebrated in a palace of ice taken from the river of Russia’s imperial city during the coldest month of the coldest year in memory, to commemorate the ratification of Russia’s treaty with the Ottoman Empire—they are saying that this will demonstrate Russia’s might and its power over all infidels.” She giggled. “Can you feature such nonsense?” She shook Avdotya’s arm, as if to jostle a word out of her.
“What does Her Highness think about it?” was what Avdotya could muster.
“Ha! What do you think the Great Whale thinks? She loves it. She devours it like it’s one of those lamb pasties she crams down her gullet by the panful.”
“Oh Lord.” Avdotya closed her eyes. “Do not oblige me to picture her chewing a pasty.”
Lena buried her nose in Avdotya’s shoulder and gave a muffled scream. “Saints preserve us! That porky face, all shiny with grease!”
Avdotya believed not a word of it anyway, couldn’t believe a word—although by this point, granted, she barely believed that she herself was alive. Had she, perhaps, died without realizing it, and was she now in purgatory, and did it turn out that purgatory was just like the life one knew, only iced over and then tapped with a hammer until a hairline crack bisected it?
A man—in her life?—to kiss her homely face and rest his hand upon her hump? Ridiculous thought. And not even something she wanted! Yes, she was sure of that.
What did she want? It was the sort of question Lena had taught her to ask, those nights when they had lain in their beds with the connecting door open so they could talk each other to sleep. What would you want if you could have it to order?
A straight back and a strong stride was the best answer she could finally give.
For that month, while the ice palace was being constructed, Avdotya continued to wait on Anna. Their afternoons were the same as ever, Anna by turns snoring and chuckling and slurping her tea and demanding that Avdotya keep talking.
“Talk of anything; don’t stop,” she would importune. “Talk about your childhood in the village. Talk about the games you played in spring, the barn mice with whom you made friends in winter. Talk about the neighing ponies, the calving cows. Talk about the things that don’t exist at all. Talk about clouds of pink cotton and the elves that live in trees. Talk, my poppet, talk. Don’t let silence reign.” And Avdotya talked, dutifully, even after invention failed her and she could no longer think of whole stories or images or even sentences but had simply begun to string together unconnected words: every word she could think of that began with ah, then beh, then geh, slower and slower as Anna nodded off, and drooled in her sleep, but Avdotya careful not to stop for good and maybe wake her up.
Those days, it was as if a wedding had never been mentioned. Maybe it really had been all a dream.
But then, on the eve of the appointed wedding day, Anna found Avdotya in her usual seat by the fire and erupted in a honking crescendo of disapproval. What was Avdotya thinking? What was the meaning of this? Anna brayed to her other ladies to gather around, enjoining them to lay in on the scolding of Avdotya. Had they ever heard of such a thing—a bride engaged in anything on the last night of her maidenhood other than solemn prayer and contemplation of her new station in life?
“To your quarters!” cried Anna, throwing out a wobbling, meaty arm with such force that it sent one of the ladies behind her stumbling to the floor. “Get you from my sight!”
And now here Avdotya was, standing before an altar, clutching a candle in one trembling hand. If she could just use her other hand to steady it! But that one was held fast in the grip of the man who was being made her husband.
Breathe, she thought. She tried to breathe in the calmness of the scene. Anna had insisted on it being a real wedding ceremony, which meant solemnity. Candles flickered in the twilit gloom. They gave off a buttery smell, or maybe that was the incense. Somewhere behind her was gathered a small audience: a handful of Anna’s other ladies, including Lena; a couple of Anna’s most prized jesters; and Anna herself, studiously quiet, her adenoidal breathing but faintly heard, a thread of mild snorts below the melodic line of the priest’s intoning.
One thing to be caught in a nightmare from which you can’t wake up. But to be trapped in someone else’s waking dream?
Instinct told her to squeeze the hand that held hers; he was real, after all, the flesh of his palm warm and dry. But she couldn’t—she couldn’t bring herself to squeeze and to feel his answering pressure. It would mean she was accepting what was happening.
Now she felt the wedding crown being lowered onto her head, and she saw out of the corner of her eye the corresponding crown being lowered onto Misha’s. She saw that the crown was a small one, a woven wreath of golden rushes with a ribbon of crimson running through.
She turned her head to meet his sad-eyed gaze. As if on cue, now he was the one to squeeze her hand. It was a kind of pressure; she even felt the rubbing of his thumb. This only made it worse. How could he pretend?
In despair, she lowered her face to the cup of ceremonial wine that had been placed at her lips.
Dinner was held in one of the regular palace banquet halls, and it lasted so long that Avdotya could begin to believe that the “palace of ice” was just a rumor. Of course, there were multitudes of toasts, but neither she nor Misha was called on to give one or to say anything at all. Jesters recited the toasts, each one more fanciful than the last: stories were told of travel to distant lands where elvish people lived in moss-lined caves, of fairy-beings who slid down moon-rays into the bedrooms of unsuspecting sleepers, of scary old witches who set traps for the wicked and all but impossible labors for the clever and the pure. Platters of meat pies, and cheeses of pink and yellow and green and blue, and enormous, staring fish were passed and speared at down the table, and Avdotya took obedient sips of wine after each clinking toast, but otherwise, she ate and drank nothing.
She and Misha were seated close together; they regularly bumped elbows. “Excuse me,” she said, every time. Even accidental touch must not be permitted to become familiar.
“Are you not hungry?” he murmured at one point. He himself had done no more than nibble around the edges of a piece of bread and cheese.
“How could anyone eat?” she murmured back.
It was the first time they had ever exchanged words. She knew almost nothing of this man! Would he have a sense of humor? From all she had heard, she doubted it. He had been a pious, foolish husband and then a forced clown. He was probably allergic to joking….
But now he favored her with a small, wincing smile. “How indeed?” he said. “Well, we must try to keep our strength up, after all.”
“Must we?” she forced out.
Her face must have betrayed something just then, for he widened his eyes and shook his head as he told her, gently, “Don’t be afraid. It will be well.”
Her throat constricted. “How can you say that? And who are you to tell me I’m afraid—”
But there was no more time to parley. “To the honeymoon!” bellowed Anna.
Avdotya walked solemnly next to Misha in a formal recessional, with trumpets playing. But at the threshold, with the frozen air rushing in and the horses stamping, there was bustle and bottlenecking, and in the confusion, Avdotya suddenly felt Lena’s hand on her forearm.
“Oh my child,” cried Avdotya, “I thought I would never see you again!”
Lena’s pale, elfin face glowed white against the flickering candlelight and the liquor-reddened foreheads. “Avenka, you say that as if you are going to your death! I forbid you to speak as if you are. But I have something to give you.” She held up a fist, from which dripped a string of pearls. “You must have this,” she said. “My mother was given it on her wedding day.”
“But she must have meant it for your wedding?”
Lena gave a shout between a laugh and a sob. “You got there first!”
But now valets were rushing forward to lead the bridal couple to their conveyance. Lena was being pulled back into the crowd. She lurched forward and dropped the necklace down Avdotya’s bodice. “For courage, my friend!” And at that moment Avdotya’s old life ended.
The next thing she knew, she was being pushed from behind up a ladder. It was dark, and torchlights were dipping and swinging, and somewhere behind her a band of dwarfs was wheezing and sawing a merry tune on zithers and trombones and fiddles and flutes. Around her, animals swarmed: horses, dogs, goats, pigs being harnessed to sleighs for the wedding procession. She smelled spilled beer, wet hay, fresh droppings, sweat.
“Climb, bride, climb!” shouted jeering voices. “Get up there! Don’t you want to be with your man?” Suddenly, the wall against which the ladder was propped went rigid and then shuddered, and she heard a sound like one of the trumpets blaring a high note in reveille. Its last note trailed off in an almost human whine, and she realized that what she was climbing was an elephant. She was climbing toward a cage, wobbling at the top, in which she would ride to what the crowd was calling their honeymoon home.
She would never remember how long the ride was. It was a cacophony of neighing and barking and squealing, of drunken singing and instruments each clanging their own private melody. The newlyweds’ cage skittered on the elephant’s back; just when she thought she had arranged her legs so that it would stay somewhat still, the elephant stopped and shrugged, or stumbled on a patch of ice, or simply rounded a corner, so that the sliding started all over again. Misha was divided from her by a partition, so she could not see if he was struggling similarly. And she was freezing. Her teeth chattered like castanets. Neither she nor Misha had been given coats. Over her wedding gown, she wore a velvet cloak of gilt-seamed patchwork, but it hung loosely, and runnels of cold air shot up her sleeves. The revelers on the ground wore sheepskin knee boots, but she and Misha were still clad only in their high-heeled wedding shoes.
And now the music was getting even louder, more insistent, wailing and stabbing as if the instruments were trapped in a battle royal. The cage was sliding so much that she was on her stomach, gripping the bars in both hands. She heard a roar and looked up to see a band of fire looping into the sky. It was the famed ice elephant, now proven to be real, spewing hot oil out its trunk. The live elephant staggered to a halt and threw its own trunk in the air, trumpeting desperately. They had arrived.
The ice palace was as real as anything could be; one could see it; one could touch it; one could even lick it, should one have a mind to do so, like a mischievous child. Yet it was also not real, standing directly on the frozen river, with a long apron that led up to a gracious portico, sculptures of figures in classical poses lining the roof, and window frames dyed to look like green marble. White, translucent, seeming to float in the black night, it was a spell cast upon the eyes, the projection of a mind that might mean well or might mean ill or might mean neither one. And what human mind could invent this? But human eyes couldn’t look away.
Once on the ground, at first, all she saw were candles. They were ranged everywhere. Small votive ones lined the path to the portico. These were trampled underfoot almost immediately by the animals and the dozens of humans from the procession who wished to gain entrance to the dwelling. Two guards with bayonets were stationed at the front to ward them off. The only ones allowed in would be the couple, Anna, and Anna’s immediate entourage, which included the dwarf band and several jolly figures outfitted like rabbits, wolves, and bears.
Avdotya heard stray animal and human yelps as ankles and paws and hoofs were stung by the overturned candles’ embers. She allowed herself to be jostled and prodded up the walkway and into the front room of the house, where more candles burned in their icy containers, arrayed along the floor and on tables and mantels of ice and in sconces in the walls. The petroleum with which they were smeared hung in the atmosphere, heavy enough to burn the throat.
“To the bedroom!” cried Anna, who led the applause as the couple made their entrance. “Why do you tarry? Do you not wish to enjoy each other? Have you not been waiting all day?” She cackled until she was out of breath.
Meanwhile, the dwarf band crowded around the couple, blasting their version of a traditional wedding tune. Anna swayed at their head, resplendent in a gold-embroidered robe that had been sewn for the occasion. On her head was a dunce-cap version of the crowns Avdotya and Misha were still wearing: a cone of gold woven with red ribbon.
“Prince Kvasnik, I avow, your new wife is a virgin! A nubile maid! It will be up to you to teach her how it’s done! Ah, you lucky dog, to be the one to fondle those un-sucked breasts!” Anna grabbed the necks of the two nearest dwarfs, one in each hand, and began to grind against the backside of the first one and then the other. “Valets!” she cried. “Prepare the couple!” And at that, the two guards burst forward and shouldered Misha and Avdotya to the wall, where with rough hands they pulled off Avdotya’s velvet cloak and removed the wedding dress by ripping it in two. It fell down either side of Avdotya’s body, and she was left in her slip. The pearls Lena had given her lay bunched inside it, against the bare flesh of her stomach.
Misha had received similar treatment. He was sleeveless now and hunching his shoulders against the cold, almost as bent over as she.
Anna had begun a chant, in rhythm with the band’s song.
Now on the ice bed, this pair must lie, all by themselves under winter’s black sky.
If they don’t want this to be their tomb, they must keep warm—how?—with boom boom boom!
With obscene hand gestures and screechy moans, she began again her swaying dance, backing away step by step, the band and entourage receding behind her out the front door of the ice palace. Slowly, gradually, with a few last peaking screams and shouts, the music died away.
The couple stood frozen in cold and confusion. Besides them, all that was left were the two guards, who were mounded in layers of fur and sheepskin and armed with rifles. One of them now upended his weapon and knocked on the frosty, puddled floor with the stock.
“Newlyweds, hark! Your orders are to stay in this dwelling until first light. We are here to enforce those orders. Any attempt to escape will be met with a shot to kill!” And they took up their places at either side of the arched front door.
Avdotya could hardly see their faces under the bear hats, could hardly see anything in the flickering light. She smelled petroleum and wet fur and sour breath.
Now sounded Misha’s voice—flat, gruff. “Come, wife. We will talk in the other room.”
Avdotya turned to him. He was holding one of the ice lamps. It lit his face orange, made his own eyes two long black shadows. His crown glinted dully in the murky light.
He looked like a monster. Monsters on all sides of her. How could she ever have thought of court as home?
Now she knew that she would die here, in this outlandish place, near-naked, among strangers. She hissed, “I am not your wife.”
He sighed. “All the same,” he said, “We must come away from these eyes.”
“These eyes!” she cried, surprising herself with the force of her own voice. “As if I should care about eyes watching me! Do you see this hump upon my back? All my life, no eyes watching me have ever seen anything else!”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t move. He just kept looking at her with those mournful sockets. If he had turned on his heel and walked into the bedroom without her, she could have borne it more easily. Had his personal force been squeezed out of him by his time as a jester?
Of course, so had hers. But he was supposed to be different. He was a man.
Well, he was like a man in one way: namely, in his untroubled assumption that she would do what he said because he said it.
“Say something!” she demanded. “Something, for God’s sake! Tell me I am ugly!” And she charged him then because she had to move, she could no longer stay still, and it was all she could do. She rammed him with the heels of her hands and the top of her head, and he toppled to the ground. The lamp tumbled from his hand and broke on the ground, extinguished.
“Get up!” she cried. She was yelling at herself now. “Get up and hit me back!”
She heard his voice, sounding tired. “Avdotya Vladimirovna….”
She kicked him in the shin with the toe of her pointy wedding shoe. “Don’t you call me by my name. You don’t know me. You have no right to call me by my name. Get up.”
She watched him struggle to his feet. She thought of the jesters’ battles she had witnessed: the way they used to feint and dodge and pull their punches until Anna reached a crescendo of fury and demanded to see real fighting. In the quivering shadows, she thought she saw tears in his eyes.
“Hit me,” she said, more quietly now.
She heard him sniffle.
“Hit me. I am waiting.”
He took a step backward. She closed her eyes. “Hit me hard when you hit me, jester. Hit me like I’m your fellow.”
But he didn’t. Instead of punching her, he fetched her a stinging slap across the face; he hit her as if she had been a saucy girl. She was enraged at the insult, but at the same time, the rage freed her. It goaded her to try the best she could to murder him. She grabbed ice lamps from the sconces and flung them at him. She took an ice cup from an end table and smashed it against the wall and rushed him with the jagged shard. And he fought back, too. He didn’t only hold up his hands in defense, whimpering. When she drew blood from his wrist with the shard, he came back at her, grabbed her hair, delivered her a sock in the jaw. She head-butted him again and tried to bite off his fingers.
If only Anna had been there to see what she had wrought. How Avdotya wished that Anna could see what real fighting looked like. Not mock fighting. No sweet team spirit, no swabbing each other’s wounds. This hunched and lanky butt of jokes was the closest she would get to being able to claw Anna’s fat face—something she had never dreamed of doing, something she had always yearned to do.
But now he was crouched in the corner, fists up in defense, and she had no more wish to feel them raining on her body. The guards still stood with impassive faces. She was still sobbing, bleeding, sweating. Already she could feel the moisture drying and freezing on her cheeks. Now she would be alone. With the little strength she had left, she staggered through the archway into the bedroom. She lowered herself onto the bed. Ice candles were burning in here as well. She would sleep now, give herself over to hypothermia. She had wanted to kill. Now she would die.
Clack-clack, clack-clack, sounding in her head. It was like a mechanized hammer or the chugging of a steam engine. But then it faded out again and she heard water dripping. She saw it too: an icy windowsill, dyed green like the trimmings of the ice palace, from which one drop of water painstakingly gathered itself to roll…to the edge…and hesitate…and then drip, driiiip…falling over the ledge to be seen no more…and then the bumpy ice again, the green, the slow gathering….
Something—a feather—was brushing her shoulder. And she heard a voice, saying, “Woman, woman….” It faded in and out, sometimes close to her ear, sometimes far away and muffled. The voice was using the word zhenshina, the word used for a woman when you don’t know her age and just want to get her attention, nothing else.
“Zhenshina,” the man’s voice was saying, “wake up.” The feather kept brushing her shoulder. It was so annoying. She wanted to sink below the clacking and the dripping into deeper oblivion, but it kept brushing her. It didn’t exactly tickle. More like swipes. Then it gripped her. So, it wasn’t a feather.
“Wake up, woman.” Right in her ear. “Wake up now. Do not fall asleep. You will die.
“Then let me die,” she managed to whisper.
Now the grip was shaking her. She yelped, trying to get rid of it. She was awake now. She had been lying on her side, and that side of her cotton slip was frozen to the bed’s surface.
“That is all well and good,” said the man’s voice. “If it were just you, you could die and be happy. But if you die, I will also die. And I am not ready to do so. Do you understand me?”
She said nothing. As a point of abstract interest, she felt curious how much of not only her slip but her flesh must be frozen to the bed’s surface. But she was too lazy to move and find out. She had not even opened her eyes.
His voice was lower now. “I must beg you to believe that I am not trying to harm you. But we must hold each other.”
It seemed that her arms still knew how to move. She tried the freest one, the one not on the side she had been sleeping on. It lifts. And then, with the shift of her body, she felt it: that bunch of tiny frozen balls at her stomach.
“The guards,” she mumbled. “Are the guards still in front?”
“Their coats, then,” she said confusedly. “Might they bring us a coat?”
“What say? They are not here to bring us coats. This is the Empress’s game. They have strict orders.”
“But I have something—” Her free hand went fidgeting at her stomach.
“Woman, what is wrong? Are you sick—”
“No, no. I have something—something you can give them—trade with them if you can.” She contorted herself, shimmied, to push the string of pearls up to where she could reach it. Throughout the whole operation, her eyes were still closed. But then she put her hand down her bodice and felt them, brought them up to swing them in his face as Lena had hers.
It worked. They were lucky that Anna was so widely reviled, and a skinflint to boot. The guards proved bribable. Perhaps they also had hearts.
As in a dream, later, she would remember that he had made her sit up. Sure enough, part of her slip had torn and remained behind on the ice, but it was all right because he drew the sheepskin around her immediately. Then he wrapped himself in the wool blanket they had given him, and the two of them huddled together on the ice bed the rest of the night, him reciting old tales to keep them awake.
So had her father, back in her home village, sung songs of their people at night around the fire. So had she and Lena traded snatches from the chronicles of spirits and warriors that they remembered from their respective childhoods.
But if she fell too long to dream of the past, she would feel herself nudged in the arm by her groom. “Do not fall asleep, woman. Speak to me what is on your mind.” Like Anna’s “Speak!”—but for her own sake this time.
Dawn broke into the Palace of Ice. It was as if an ivory infusion had been tipped into the sky and then slowly stirred. The light was weak but persistent. The sun would shine today. It sent out one ray as if to test, and the ray caught a patch of frost outside the ice palace’s bedroom window and refracted against the glass. The glint in the window was calm, still.
And now the dwarfs, who had also been patiently waiting, crowded the front door of the ice palace and fell to pounding. “Open up, in the name of the savior! ‘Tis morning!” When they were admitted, they rushed in like a breeze from the river: six of them, all from last night’s band. They rushed in bearing fur coats and sheepskin boots and urns of warm libations.
“Do they live?” they demanded.
“They live,” replied the guards.
“Then to the bedroom!”
Several minutes later, down the steps of the ice portico advanced the final procession of the wedding festivities: the wedded couple, hobbling in newly donned sheepskin boots, flanked by the two burly guards and preceded by half a dozen dwarfs, who led them to a normal carriage, pulled by horses, which would convey them to Prince Misha’s manor house, which he was now allowed to reclaim, relieved of his jester duties by the sacrament of marriage in the Russian Orthodox church.
Avdotya might not have had much longer to live, childbirth in any era being a particularly risky proposition for a woman already in middle age. In the time she had left, we may assume that her husband, a cultured man, proved kind as well as appreciative of her gifts of conversation. Would she ever miss her life with Lena (from whom, in point of fact, she would receive visits), the tabby cat, and the cot in the closet? As for the answer to that, since she left no diaries that we know of, we can only conjecture.
About the Author:
Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories (Lewis-Clark Press) and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You (Outpost19 e-books). A second novel, Marian Hall, is seeking representation. She has taught writing and literature at various institutions including Whitman College and Southern Methodist University and, presently, at Bellevue College, in Washington state. Currently, she is working on a collection of stories inspired by Russian folk tales and historical settings. She lives by Lake Union in Seattle, with two older but still spirited cats.
Feature image by Mondschwinge/Pixabay