Boston, December 1930
ALEXANDER BARRINGTON STOOD IN front of the mirror and adjusted his red Cub Scout tie.Rather, he was attempting to adjust his Cub Scout tie, because he couldn’t take his eyes off his face, a face uncharacteristically glum.His mouth was turned down.His hands were ﬁdgeting with the gray-and-white tie, unable to do a good job, today of all days.
Stepping away from the mirror, he looked around the small room and sighed. It wasn’t much, a wood ﬂoor, drab brown-branch wallpaper, a bed, a nightstand.
It didn’t matter about the room. It wasn’t his room. It was a rented room, a furnished rented room and all the furniture belonged to the landlady downstairs. His real room was not in Boston but back in Barrington, and he had really liked his old room and hadn’t felt the same way about any other room he had lived in since. And he had lived in six different rooms since two years ago when his father sold their house and took Alexander out of Barrington.
Now they were leaving this room, too. It didn’t matter.
Rather, that’s not what mattered.
Alexander looked in the mirror again. He came up ﬂush to the mirror, stuck his face against the glass and breathed out deeply. “Alexander,” he whispered. “What now?”
His best friend Teddy thought it was the most exciting thing in the world, Alexander’s leaving the country.
Alexander couldn’t have disagreed more.
Through his partly open door, he heard his mother and father arguing. He ignored them. They tended to argue through stress. Presently the door opened and his father, Harold Barrington, came in.
“Son, are you ready? The car is waiting for us downstairs. And your friends are downstairs, too, waiting to say goodbye. Teddy asked me if I would take him instead of you.” Harold smiled. “I told him I just might. What do you think, Alexander? You want to trade places with Teddy? Live with his crazy mother and crazier father?”
“Yes, because my own parents are so sane,” said Alexander. Harold was thin and of medium height. His one distinguishing feature was a resolutely set chin on a broad, square-jawed face. At the age of forty-eight his light-brown, graying hair was still thick upon his head, and his eyes were intense and blue. Alexander liked it when his father was in a good mood because then the eyes lost some of their seriousness.
Pushing Harold out of the way, his mother, Jane Barrington, strolled in, wearing her best silk dress and white pillbox hat, and said, “Harry, leave the boy alone. You can see he’s trying to get ready. The car will wait. And so will Teddy and Belinda.” She smoothed out her thick, long dark hair arranged under the hat. Jane’s voice still carried traces of the lilting rounded Italian accent that she had not been able to lose since coming to America at seventeen. She lowered her voice. “I never liked that Belinda, you know.”
“I know, Mom,” said Alexander. “That’s why we’re leaving the country, isn’t it?” He watched them in the mirror. He looked most like his mother. In personality he hoped he was more like his father. He didn’t know. His mother amused him, his father confounded him. “I’m ready, Dad,” he said.
Harold came over and put his arm on Alexander’s shoulder. “And you thought Cub Scouts was an adventure.”
Cub Scouts was plenty for me. “Dad?” he asked, looking not at his father but at his own reﬂection.“If it doesn’t work out …we can come back, right? We can come back to—” He stopped. He didn’t want his father to hear his voice crack. Taking a steadying breath, he ﬁnished, “To America?”
When Harold didn’t reply, Jane came up to Alexander, who now stood between his parents, his mother in small heels three inches taller than his father, who was a good foot and a half taller than Alexander. “Tell the boy the truth, Harold. He deserves to know. Tell him. He is old enough.”
Harold said, “No, Alexander. We are not coming back. We are going to make the Soviet Union our permanent home. There is no place for us in America.”
Alexander wanted to say that there had been a place for him. Alexander had a place in America. Teddy and Belinda had been his friends since they were all three. Barrington was a tiny, white-shingled, black-shuttered town with three steepled churches and a short main street that ran four blocks from one end of town to the other. In the woods near Barrington, Alexander had had a happy childhood. But he knew his father didn’t want to hear it, so he said nothing.
“Alexander, your mother and I, we are absolutely sure this is the right thing for our family. For the ﬁrst time in our lives, we are ﬁnally able to do what we believe in. We are no longer paying lip service to the communist ideals. It’s easy to propound change while living in absolute comfort, isn’t it? Well, now we are going to live what we believe. You know it’s what I fought for my whole adult life. You’ve seen me. And your mother, too.”
Alexander nodded. He had seen them. His father and mother arrested for their principles. Visiting his father in jail. Being unwelcome around Barrington. Being laughed at in school. Constantly getting into ﬁghts for his father’s principles. He had seen his mother stand by his father’s side, picketing and protesting with him. The three of them had gone to Washington D.C. together to parade communist pride in front of the White House. They were arrested there, too. Alexander had spent a night in a juvenile detention center when he was seven. But on the plus side, he was the only boy in Barrington who had been to the White House.
He had thought all that was sacriﬁce enough. And then he had thought that breaking with their family and giving up the house that had been the Barrington homestead for eight generations was sacriﬁce enough. He thought that living in small rented rooms in busy and dusty Boston while disseminating the socialist word was sacriﬁce enough.
Frankly, Alexander was surprised by the move to the Soviet Union, and not happily surprised. But his father believed. His father thought the Soviet Union was the place where they would ﬁnally belong, where Alexander would not be laughed at, where they would be welcomed and admired instead of shunned and ridiculed. The place where they could build their life up from “meaningless” and make it “meaningful.” Power was to the toiling man in the new Russia, and soon the toiling man would be king. His father’s belief was enough for Alexander.
His mother pressed her painted red mouth on Alexander’s forehead, leaving a bright greasy pucker, which she then rubbed off—not well. “You know, don’t you, darling, that your father wants you to learn the right way, to grow up the right way?”
A little petulantly, Alexander said, “This is really not about me, Mom—”
“No.” Harold’s voice was adamant. His hand never left Alexander’s shoulder. “This is all about you, Alexander. You’re only eleven now, but soon you will become a man. And since you have only one life, you can be only one man. I’m going to the Soviet Union to make you into the man you need to be. You, son, are my only legacy to this world.”
“There are plenty of men in America, too, Dad,” Alexander pointed out. “Herbert Hoover. Woodrow Wilson. Calvin Coolidge.”
“Yes, but not good men. America can produce greedy and selﬁsh men, prideful and vengeful men. That’s not the man I want you to be.”
“Alexander,” said his mother. “We want you to have advantages of character that people in America just don’t have.”
“That’s right,” said Harold. “America makes men soft.”
Alexander stepped back from his parents, never taking his eyes off his solemn reﬂection. That’s what he had been looking at before they came in. Himself. He was looking at his face and wondering, when I grow up, what kind of a man am I going to be? Saluting his father, he said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll make you proud. I’ll be ungreedy and unselﬁsh, unprideful and unvengeful. I’ll be as hard a man as they come. Let’s go. I’m ready.”
“I don’t want you to be a hard man, Alexander. I want you to be a good man.” Harold paused. “A better man than me.”
As they were walking out, Alexander turned around and caught himself in the mirror one last time. I don’t want to forget this boy, he thought, in case I ever need to come back to him.
Stockholm, May 1943
I am on a stake, thought eighteen-year-old Tatiana, waking up one cold summer morning. I cannot live like this anymore. She got up from the bed, washed, brushed her hair, collected her books and her few clothes, and then left the hotel room as clean as if she had not been in it for over two months. The white curtains blowing a breeze into the room were unrelenting.
Inside herself was unrelenting.
Over the desk there was an oval mirror. Before Tatiana tied up her hair she stared at her face. What stared back at her was a face she no longer recognized. Gone was the round baby shape; a gaunt oval remained over her drawn cheekbones and her high forehead and her squared jaw and her clenched lips. If she had dimples still, they did not show; it had been a long time since her mouth bared teeth or dimples. The scar on her cheek from the piece of the broken windshield had healed and was fading into a thin pink line. The freckles were fading too, but it was the eyes Tatiana recognized least of all. Her once twinkling green eyes set deep into the pale features looked as if they were the only ghastly crystal barriers between strangers and her soul. She couldn’t lift them to anyone. She could not lift them to herself. One look into the green sea, and it was clear what raged on behind the frail façade.
Tatiana brushed her shoulder blade-length platinum hair. She didn’t hate her hair anymore.
How could she, for Alexander had loved it so much.
She would not think of it. She wanted to cut it all off, shear herself like a lamb before the slaughter, she wanted to cut her hair and take the whites out of her eyes and the teeth out of her mouth and tear the arteries out of her throat.
Tying the hair up in a bun on top of her head, Tatiana put a kerchief over it, to attract as little attention as possible, though in Sweden— a country full of blonde girls—it was easy to become lost in the crowd.
Certainly she had become that.
Tatiana knew it was time to go.But she could ﬁnd nothing inside to propel her forward.She had the baby inside her, but it was as easy to have a baby in Sweden as it was in America.Easier.She could stay.She wouldn’t have to make her way across an unfamiliar country, get a passage on a freighter headed for Britain and then travel across the ocean to the United States in the middle of a world war.The Germans were blowing up the northern waters on a daily basis, their torpedoes detonating the Allied submarines and the blockade ships into high ﬂame balls encircled by black smoke, incongruous against the serene seas of Bothnia and the Baltic, of the Arctic and the Atlantic.Staying safe in Stockholm required nothing more of her than what she had been doing.
What had she been doing?
She’d been seeing Alexander everywhere.
Everywhere she walked, everywhere she sat, she would turn her head to the right, and there he would be, tall in his ofﬁcer’s uniform, riﬂe slung on his shoulder, looking at her and smiling. She would reach out and touch thin air, touch the white pillow on which she saw his face. She would turn to him and break the bread for him and sit on the bench and watch him making his slow sure way to her, crossing the street for her. She would walk after Swedish men during the day, men whose backs were broad, whose stride was long, she would stare impolitely into the faces of strangers because it was Alexander’s face she saw etched there. And then she would blink, blink again and he would be gone. And she would be gone, too. She would lower her gaze, and walk on.
She raised her eyes to the mirror. Behind her Alexander stood. He brushed the hair away from her neck and bent to her. She couldn’t smell him, nor feel his lips on her. Just her eyes saw him, almost felt his black hair on her neck.
Tatiana closed her eyes.
She went and had breakfast at Spivak café, her usual two helpings of bacon, two cups of black coffee, three poached eggs. She pretended to read the English paper she had bought at the kiosk across the street; pretended because the words were gases inside her head, her mind could not catch them. She read better in the afternoon when she was calmer. Leaving the café, she walked to the industrial pier, where she sat on the bench and watched the Swedish dockhand load up his barges full of ﬁnished paper to be taken over to Helsinki. She watched the longshoreman steadily. She knew that in a few minutes, he would go off to talk to his friends ﬁfty meters down the pier. He would have a smoke and a small cup of coffee. He would be gone from the barge thirteen minutes. He would leave the covered barge unattended, the plank connected to the cabin of the shipping vessel.
Thirteen minutes later he would come back and continue loading the paper from the truck, wheeling it down the plank on his hand trolley. In sixty-two minutes the captain of the barge would appear; the longshoreman would salute him and untie the ropes. And the captain would take his barge across the thawed Baltic Sea to Helsinki.
This was the seventy-ﬁfth morning Tatiana had watched him.
Helsinki was only four hours from Vyborg. And Tatiana knew from the English newspapers she bought daily that Vyborg—for the ﬁrst time since 1918—was back in Soviet hands. The Red Army had taken Russia’s Karelian territories back from the Finns. A barge across the sea to Helsinki, a truck across the forests to Vyborg, and she too would be back in Soviet hands.
“Sometimes I wish you were less bloody-minded,” Alexander says. He had managed to receive a three-day furlough. They’re in Leningrad—the last time they’re in Leningrad together, their last everything.
“Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?”
He grunts. “Yes. I wish the kettle were less black.” He snorts in frustration. “There are women,” he says, “I know there are, who listen to their men. I’ve seen them. Other men have them—”
She tickles him. He does not seem amused. “All right. Tell me what to do,” she says, lowering her voice two notches. “I will do exactly as you say.”
“Leave Leningrad and go back to Lazarevo instantly,” Alexander tells her. “Go where you will be safe.”
Rolling her eyes, she says, “Come on. I know you can play this game.”
“I know I can,” Alexander says, sitting on her parents’ old sofa. “I just don’t want to. You don’t listen to me about the important things . . .”
“Those aren’t the important things,” Tatiana says, kneeling in front of him and taking hold of his hands. “If the NKVD come for me, I will know you are gone and I will be happy to stand against the wall.” She squeezes his hands. “I will go to the wall as your wife and never regret a second I spent with you. So let me have this here with you. Let me smell you once more, taste you once more, kiss you once more,” she says. “Now play my game with me, sorrowful as it is to lie down together in wintry Leningrad. Play the miracle with me—to lie down with you at all. Tell me what to do and I will do it.”
Alexander pulls on her hand. “Come here.” He opens his arms. “Sit on top of me.”
“Now take your hands and place them on my face.”
“Put your lips on my eyes.”
“Kiss my forehead.”
“Kiss my lips.”
She obeys. And obeys.
“Tania . . .”
“Can’t you see I’m breaking?”
“Ah,” she says. “You’re still in one piece then.”
She sat and watched the dockhand when it was sunny and she sat and watched him when it rained. Or when it was foggy, which is what it was nearly every morning at eight o’clock.
This morning was none of the above. This morning was cold. The pier smelled of fresh water and of ﬁsh. The seagulls screeched overhead, a man’s voice shouted.
Where is my brother to help me, my sister, my mother? Pasha, help me, hide in the woods where I know I can ﬁnd you. Dasha, look what’s happened. Do you even see? Mama, Mama. I want my mother. Where is my family to ask things of me, to weigh on me, to intrude on me, to never let me be silent or alone, where are they to help me through this? Deda, what do I do? I don’t know what to do.
This morning the dockhand did not go over to see his friend at the next pier for a smoke and a coffee. Instead, he walked across the road and sat next to her on the bench.
This surprised her. But she said nothing, she just wrapped her white nurse’s coat tighter around herself, and ﬁxed the kerchief covering her hair.
In Swedish he said to her, “My name is Sven. What’s your name?”
After a longish pause, she replied. “Tatiana. I don’t speak Swedish.”
In English he said to her, “Do you want a cigarette?”
“No,” she replied, also in English. She thought of telling him she spoke little English. She was sure he didn’t speak Russian.
He asked her if he could get her a coffee, or something warm to throw over her shoulders. No and no. She did not look at him.
Sven was silent a moment. “You want to get on my barge, don’t you?” he asked. “Come. I will take you.” He took her by her arm. Tatiana didn’t move. “I can see you have left something behind,” he said, pulling on her gently. “Go and retrieve it.” Tatiana did not move.
“Take my cigarette, take my coffee, or get on my barge. I won’t even turn away. You don’t have to sneak past me. I would have let you on the ﬁrst time you came. All you had to do was ask. You want to go to Helsinki? Fine. I know you’re not Finnish.” Sven paused. “But you are very pregnant. Two months ago it would have been easier for you. But you need to go back or go forward. How long do you plan to sit here and watch my back?”
Tatiana stared into the Baltic Sea. “If I knew, would I be sitting here?”
“Don’t sit here anymore. Come,” said the longshoreman.
She shook her head.
“Where is your husband? Where is the father of your baby?”
“Dead in the Soviet Union,” Tatiana breathed out.
“Ah, you’re from the Soviet Union.” He nodded. “You’ve escaped somehow? Well, you’re here, so stay. Stay in Sweden. Go to the consulate, get yourself refugee protection. We have hundreds of people getting through from Denmark. Go to the consulate.”
Tatiana shook her head.
“You’re going to have that baby soon,” Sven said. “Go back, or move forward.”
Tatiana’s hands went around her belly. Her eyes glazed over.
The dockhand patted her gently and stood up. “What will it be? You want to go back to the Soviet Union? Why?”
Tatiana did not reply. How to tell him her soul had been left there?
“If you go back, what happens to you?”
“I die most likely,” she barely whispered.
“If you go forward, what happens to you?”
“I live most likely.”
He clapped his hands. “What kind of a choice is that? You must go forward.”
“Yes,” said Tatiana, “but how do I live like this? Look at me. You think, if I could, I wouldn’t?”
“So you’re here in the Stockholm purgatory, watching me move my paper day in and day out, watching me smoke, watching me. What are you going to do? Sit with your baby on the bench? Is that what you want?”
Tatiana was silent.
The ﬁrst time she laid eyes on him she was sitting on a bench, eating ice cream.
“I don’t have it in me.”
He nodded. “You have it. It’s just covered up. For you it’s winter.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. Summer’s here. The ice will melt.”
Tatiana struggled up from the bench. Walking away, she said in Russian, “It’s not the ice anymore, my seagoing philosopher. It’s the pyre.”