An elderly woman smiles wanly from a tiny photo on the newspaper’s front page, above the fold, off to one side.
The accompanying article describes how, inside 87-year-old Galina Brodsky’s body, doctors found and removed an object with the alien-sounding name “lithopedion” — more readily known by its romanticized common name, a stone baby. A fetus that starts its development in a place outside the uterus and then dies. The mother’s body protects her by calcifying the baby’s corpse, rendering it harmless, an undetected passenger. A woman could go on to birth other children — as Brodsky had — and never know she still carried a child inside.
No more than three hundred cases have been recorded in the last four hundred years, the story states. A Muslim woman in Casablanca was believed to have carried her unborn baby inside her for almost fifty years. That had been the longest documented case until last week. Galina’s doctor told the paper he believes the lithopedion he removed could have been in her body as long as seventy years.
If so, the reporter writes, Mrs. Brodsky has made medical history.
Galina granted a brief interview only because the reporter was an old friend, the story says. She told the reporter she was embarrassed by the attention and that she’d be glad when she was out of her hospital room. Given her husband’s accident and stroke, providing a new answer to a medical trivia question seems completely unimportant.
She calls it freakish coincidence that the pain inflicted by what turned out to be the lithopedion overcame her when she discovered her husband lying injured in the basement.
The article sketches Brodsky’s extraordinary life in quick brushstrokes. How she and her husband Danilo escaped from three dictators — Stalin, Hitler, Perón — before coming to Virginia and building their dream house and art school atop Tinker Mountain. How, going by the name Daniel Broadsky, her husband became for a time the most sought after sculptor in the nation. How they had raised three children, who all have children of their own. How, after so many miracles, he’d been felled by that most mundane of misfortunes, a stroke, which sent him tumbling down the basement steps.
Miraculous, really, that he had even survived the fall.
The skeleton-thin boy, his head a great thatched melon above scrawny neck and jutting ribs, played his crudely-cut reed in the prison yard. A man had given him this plaything, though he did not remember the man’s face or name. He believed the man had been a prison guard, though he could not remember a uniform.
Each day he woke with the sad women, in the cell with the stinking bucket and the blankets that crawled with lice. Then the feed hole slid up in the bottom of the door, and after the bowls slid through and the women gathered around them, scooping the scraps of bread from the water with their fingers, a jailor’s gruff voice would call to him. “Danilo,” the guard would say, “You may come out.” And he crawled through the feed hole, the gritty floor rough on his knees. They let him play in the prison yard, a child alone, surrounded by stone walls and forbidding doors.
It was a miracle, perhaps, that he could even produce a note from the reed. No one had taught him how — he seemed to simply have a knack for it, as some do. He knew few songs, so often the notes he chose were random. He once played a song he remembered in his mother’s voice, and after he repeated it a few times, from one of the cells a woman’s voice joined in: bayu bayushki bayu, bayu detushku moyu, she sang, chto na gorke, na gorye, o vesyennei, o pore. He kept playing, wanting the voice never to stop, but it finally did, and he never learned who it was who sang that day.
One of the four walls of the prison yard held no doors. The stones and mortar were pocked and stained. He liked to run his fingers in the dirt before the wall because of what he sometimes found there, shining buried treasures. He remembered from the days outside, when the warm winds from the sea heralded the great battleships, and the men on horseback would greet them, their swords at their sides, their coats glinting with shiny medals. That’s what he found in the dirt: officers’ medals, badges, pins, a trove of them.
He hid them in the yard now; he didn’t bring them back to the cell. The only time he did, he showed them off to the one who took it upon herself to make sure he ate, the one who wiped his face afterward, who let him call her aunt; and she began to weep. Others, too, saw the shining metal things in his hands, began to cry, started to scream at him. Soon he was crying himself. He didn’t understand what he’d done to upset them.
So now he kept them to himself in the yard, unburied them and laid them out, moved them around. He tried to use their shapes and colors to create things in the dirt, letters or images. He arranged them in a face, his father’s face. He did not know where his father was. The landlady’s dog had tried to bite him, and when he told his father, his meaty face grew dark, and he took a knife and left the flat. Later Danilo heard the landlady screeching in anger. He half-heard phrases: You shouldn’t have dared and I can prove and kontr-revolutsiya. Only two days later the prison men came.
Danilo played in the dirt, arranging the medals in circles that radiated out like the petals of a flower.
Ural Mountains, 1932
Galina knew the truth.
Her father insisted that Danilo’s carvings could never measure up to his own, not without the blessing of the Queen of the Copper Mountain. They had no heart, he said. Pretty as they were, they would never breathe, never live, he said.
But any untrained eye could see that Danilo’s work in stone and wood and paint was at least the equal of her father’s, if not better. He had carved and painted a likeness of their cat so real in its tabby-striped softness she absent-mindedly began to pet it one day, only to jerk her hand back in surprise — and then spotted the real tom under the big table playing with a rat’s tail.
She thought Danilo already the better artisan at fifteen than her bitter sire at forty-one, tainted green with envy that when he made the monthly wagon trips to the village market the boy’s creations sold better then his own.
So Sergei Prokovich lorded this pathetic superstition of the mountain queen over his ward to deny his approval, ensuring the boy always fell short of an invented standard. She had voiced this opinion exactly once, making sure Danilo saw, and heard. Her father rewarded her with a drunken backhand, then slumped with a sob into his creaky wooden chair. She continued to glare until he started screaming at her to leave. She had dashed then off into the twilit field, mosquitoes swarming to drink from her flesh when she finally collapsed in the grass.
Snow-capped even in summer, the mountains pushed against the sky, weary giants slouching their rounded rocky shoulders. Would that one could reach out its fist now and crush her.
Danilo, who had stayed silent, shaking, through the exchange, found her in the encroaching dark, perhaps guided by the cloud of insects. A year her junior, he was so fragilely thin, though so was she, so was father. Danilo had been lean when he came, after his own parents died in Odessa, and exhausted by the endless miles in the cart. Danilo’s mother and Galina’s father were distant cousins, he had agreed to take Danilo on as a favor to his aunts, who thought it a good fit as the boy showed an artistic spark. She had thought so many times about the sad story of his lonely imprisonment that it had become, in a way, her own memory —
“You should not fight with him,” he said, appearing next to her with no telltale warning. “Not over me.”
She sat up from the weeds, defiant. “He should never speak to you like that. He has no right.”
Danilo would tell her later, how, despite the puffiness around her eyes, his breath caught at the sight of her face in the moonlight, and how his head swam, circled by the faint buzz of mosquitoes. But she thought he gasped at the bruise on her cheek, and when he reached with a trembling hand to brush a tear away, the touch surprised her, warmth spreading from the contact. She caught his wrist before he could pull his fingers away.
Later they lay in the grass, oblivious to the stings that welted their skin. The night grew colder, but neither wished to return to the house.
Something rustled in the grass, and Danilo sprang up. She heard him whisper, come back.
“What is it?”
His voice came in nervous starts and stops as he answered in the dark. “Sometimes when I come out here to be by myself, to play the pipes I made to please my mothers, a tiny dragon comes to listen. It has gold eyes. Scales like tarnished copper. It stays until I stop playing.”
Galina snorted. “You play pipes for a lizard?” She felt strange. At times she had heard him play, and wherever she was she would stop and listen, but not go to him.
He peered long into the grass. Then he stood. His voice sounded odd. “You should not talk back to your father. What he says about me, he is right.”
She watched in stunned silence as he walked away.
Ural Mountains, 1933
Galina’s boots would never hold up to a hike into the unforgiving mountains, so she navigated her tiny bedroom in the dark, relying on touch and familiarity until she pulled aside the faded sheet hanging in the door. In the main room her father snored on a pallet beside the remains of the fire. Grateful that the few embers still dying in the hearth had lasted long enough to gift her with their wan light, she waited for her eyes to adjust. Then, stepping with care, she searched through the room for every rag she could find.
Her father stirred in his sleep, moaned words she could not make out. She held her breath until his returned to a steady rasp.
Back in her room, she grew bolder, lighting a lamp so she could accomplish the task at hand. By the little flame’s illumination she wrapped the rags around her booted feet, and bound the wrappings in place with heavy twine. She pulled three plain dresses on over her leggings, and over all that her hooded fur cloak, the one that had been her mother’s.
No longer so concerned for secrecy, she took the lamp out into the main room. Horrible as the cold would be, she needed to leave while the stars still shone. She wanted the sun to be as high in the sky as it could go once she reached the mountain, because she knew that was where she would find Danilo.
In the village, the laughing women with faces like plump apples had shaken their heads in mock shame while their thick-bearded husbands chuckled and joked about the rooster who fled the coup. A boy skilled with his hands, for certain, but without the stomach to right a wrong and endure a wedding. Hardly the first time the villagers had observed such a disgrace unfold but perhaps, truly, she was better off.
Yet she knew Danilo: no matter how his craft consumed him, no matter how his jaw clenched at her father’s taunts, he had wanted their child to have a father, she absolutely knew it in her heart. She could not believe he intended to run away from her. No, her father’s lies had driven him to do something insane. And wherever he was, he wanted to come back. She knew it.
But how could he be alive after so many days on the mountain? It did not matter. In some manner not unlike the way she felt the life that was theirs to sculpt thriving warm in her belly, she felt certain he was alive, and trapped. She did not want to think about what the journey she was about to undertake could mean for their baby. Her faith in herself was all she could trust.
She did not notice till she was almost to the door that her father had sat up to watch her — his face, turned away from the firelight, a black oval fringed by the wisps of gray that clung to his temples.
“Your lies brought this,” she said.
He began to shake. She could not tell whether he was laughing or crying.
At last he spoke, a flat whisper. “She wouldn’t take me, but she wanted him.” His own words seemed to choke him. “You will never get him back.”
“Are you going to stop me, then?”
The coward didn’t answer.
Her rage carried her outside, kept her heart pounding, a source of heat to fight the terrible cold.
The dawn found her trudging into the foothills, a black flea atop an endless snow-covered hide, slogging through drifts at times deeper than her hips. A breeze clawed her face with fingers so cold they burned, strove to worm those terrible fingers through the layers of her clothes. A quavering voice in her head grew louder with every cloudy breath, telling her she had already doomed herself, her baby, one suicidal fool chasing another.
But then the way became easier — because she found tracks in the snowdrifts. Tracks like she’d never seen before in winter, something with clawed feet and a belly that slid across the top of the snow as a snake’s or lizard’s would — though if it was such a creature, it was larger than any variety she’d ever laid eyes on. She followed the trail, and her trek ceased to be such an ordeal.
The path led her onto the stony shoulders of fallen giants, and higher still.
By the time the sun blazed overhead, she found the first of the flowers, a carving of concentric petals half-hidden in snow. She brushed the flakes away and uncovered a rose bloom, larger than her head, every petal sculpted out of the mountainside in detail that astonished.
That find was just the first of many. Not long after, still following the path drawn for her in the snow, she arrived at the cave mouth.
When she called out in that dark space, the words that echoed back to her no longer sounded like her voice.
They fled from yet another tyrant.
Danilo’s silver tongue had acquired them a second horse to drag their cart through the icy muck that snowfall had made of the road. “What do you need it for now?” he had cajoled the farmer they’d fallen in with two nights ago, as the bent and browned old man made his own plans to flee over the border. “Too many will slow you. Take no more than you need.”
Around them barren trees scratched at the grey sky. They struggled on alone — once they had been part of a great caravan of covered wagons, rolling carts, even automobiles pulled by horses. A few refugees pedaled their bicycles through the sleet. The caravan was beset with storms, once assaulted with machine gun fire and artillery. They never stopped. To stop and help the wounded or the dying meant offering yourself to Death.
They had slipped again and again past His bony grasp. Had Danilo not bluffed his way past a Schutzstaffel officer, using fake orders typed on stolen stationary marked with an official seal, they would have been forced like all the others to turn south instead of north at Hamburg — the wrong direction.
Despite the cold, she couldn’t bear to stay under the stifling canvas covering. She insisted, despite Danilo’s protests, on managing the reins. She would forever be the first to acknowledge her husband’s genius, but his astonishing talents did not extend to horsemanship.
Eons had passed, it seemed, since the terrible winter when they left her father’s farm — but she felt certain that winter and its malevolent Queen had pursued them, had found them here.
Danilo walked beside the wagon and sometimes pushed. He had grown thick as a tree, and strong. It was a wonder his hands could still be so gentle.
He hurried to the head of the cart, keeping pace beside her now, his head level with her knee, and tried to lighten the mood. “When we have our son, we should call him Sergei. Would you like that?” She stiffened, but he didn’t seem to notice. “It’s your father’s name. Of course you’d like that.”
“How could you know?” she said. “But I suppose you’ll do whatever you like.”
He laughed. “What is this now? I want what you want.”
She knew better, but she said it nonetheless: “I want you to play the pipes.”
“What?” He laughed again, even more incredulous.
“You heard me.”
“You know I can’t play pipes.” Yet, improbably, on this horrific day, one of many they’d endured, many more still ahead, his smile brightened. “But for you, if it is what you want, I will learn. Now, our baby—”
But she did not know, not then, if she could ever have another child.
“If it is a girl,” he went on, “I like the name Tamara.”
Then his sky-wide grin faltered, for she had begun to shake her head, no, no, no, no. “You cannot call her that,” she said. “You cannot!”
He touched her knee, frightened. “What’s wrong?”
Furious, she turned to him. “I could tell you, and tell you, and tell you,” she said. “But you will never remember.”
Then she spoke, and no matter how many times he asked her to repeat herself, he could not hear the words.
A warm wind wafted through the screen door into the den, ruffled sensuous fingers through Daniel’s beard. As he held up the eagerly anticipated letter — the page practically burned in his fingers — the caress of the breeze felt like Fate herself offering congratulations.
Had he sculpted a mountain and built a watch tower at its top, he could have stood no higher than he felt at that moment. Though in a way, he had done exactly that, choosing this site in the Appalachians after they arrived in New York; carving this home out of the earth; building the school through word of mouth, then advertising in print and broadcast; building his career to heights that sometimes dizzied him. And here, in his trembling hand, fluttered the ultimate reward.
As soon as the lump in his throat loosened, he pulled the screen door open, strode out onto the freshly varnished deck and bellowed to be heard in every corner of his wife’s garden terraces. Students and their easels wer scattered throughout the trellises and beds. He called them all inside, his order immediately evoking frantic protests from the silly teenagers and even sillier grownups. “It’s not time yet! I’m not finished!” whined the freckled girl perched beside the snapdragons — Jackie, not quite fourteen, with just enough talent that she could perhaps get somewhere if she ever took her lessons seriously.
He wasn’t unsympathetic to her complaint. Only twenty minutes ago he had ordered all the little chickadees out into Galina’s fantastic flowered landscapes with instructions to complete an oil painting from life in exactly an hour, merciless instructor that he was.
“Don’t worry about that. Put your brushes down and leave your easels. I have news!”
Once certain they were coming, he turned — to find Galina leaning on the back of the couch, wearing a paint-stained smock of her own, eyeing him with a twinkle of coy suspicion. He offered her a smile bright and broad as the sky.
When everyone assembled, he read the letter aloud.
In Daniel’s newest series of sculptures — the most attention-getting of his career — he had begun molding busts of great world leaders: Winston Churchill. Gandhi. Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy. He had chosen to include in the series the current President, whom he admired with fervor, whom he saw as Kennedy’s heir. Kennedy had paved the way for civil reform here in the land that Daniel now thought of as home. But Kennedy had also understood the threat posed by the monster that consumed the land Daniel could never return to, the Russia of his childhood, a monster grown out of medals sewn in the dirt.
Kennedy’s party lost its way in the Vietnam quagmire, lost its courage, began to act as if they no longer saw the bear that slavered inches from their exposed throats. This new President, who never lost his nerve or his humor even when wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet — he understood the world would never sleep in safety so long as the monster lived.
So Daniel had sculpted him, and the great man had somehow gotten word of it. His staff had asked a price and Daniel had named one. And in the letter he read to his enraptured students, the White House Chief of Staff informed him that his price would be honored: the statue given freely in exchange for a private audience with the President.
They clapped for him and hugged him, and after a few minutes of that nonsense he wrenched the smile from his face and ordered them back outside.
Only once they were gone from the room did he notice his wife wasn’t smiling. She asked, “What will you tell him, Danilo?”
He frowned. “You need to ask? I will tell him, with emphasis, not to waver. I will tell him not to listen to these new liberals in the media who speak of anyone who opposes communism as if they are raving reactionaries. They are no better than the revolutionaries who hated the Czar more than they loved their own country. I will tell him that whatever he does to contain the spread of communism, he must remember he is in the right, whatever the outcry.”
Galina’s own frown deepened. “Have you forgotten that a government is not its people? Yes, the Soviet Union is not Russia, but our Russia is still there. Our families are still there, what’s left of them, ” she said. “Have you forgotten even that now? There is so much you have forgotten.”
An awkward silence followed. “Of course I haven’t forgotten,” Daniel said. “Why would you think that?”
But as he asked it, she left.
He didn’t try to follow her, nor did he let angry thoughts crease his brow for long. Galina had her moods. After all the terrors they’d endured together, a difference of opinion seemed too insignificant a thing to fret over.
He ventured out to check on his pupils’ progress, acting on the well-tested premise that his hulking presence would make them work twice as fast. He found Jackie again beside the snapdragons and lavender, with reasonably competent facsimiles of those blooms taking shape on her too-tiny canvas. He jabbed a thick finger at her painting. “Those shadows should be umber, not black.”
“Oh!” She started and turned around. But when he saw her face, something startled him: her eyes had flashed green, he thought, or for an instant reflected that shade.
The surprised look didn’t leave her face, but she wasn’t looking at her teacher. “Who’s that girl? I haven’t seen her before.”
Indeed, a girl Daniel had never seen on the grounds before regarded them from the gazebo. A slight breeze stirred her pale hair, made it flow like soft snowfall. She was younger than most of his students, perhaps eleven, in a dress of simple gray, face a graceful oval. He could not make out the color of her eyes.
Something about her caused a stir in the pit of his stomach, a fluttering anxiety the likes of which he had not felt in decades. He started to tell Jackie he did not recognize the girl either, but his throat and teeth and tongue couldn’t form the sounds.
When he looked back, the gazebo was empty. He forgot all about it soon after.
Galina and her grandson Sam sat side by side on the loveseat in the den, their backs to a wall of riverstone and a circular window framed with yellowed masonry, arranged by Daniel in a pattern like a sunburst or a daisy bloom.
Sam seemed to enjoy these moments much more than his older, more surly siblings ever had. Rather than fidgeting through the folk tales she spun, he sat unabashedly spellbound. In the kitchen at the other end of the house, Irene — Sam’s mother, Galina’s youngest daughter — sang as she sliced carrots and cucumbers for dinner, a chore she’d taken upon herself during this afternoon’s visit.
Sam listened, and Galina told: “Everyone in the village believed the boy had run away, but she knew where he had gone. Because the Queen of the Copper Mountain loved him too. She loved to hear him play the pipes, and wanted him to only play for her.
“She lured him to her lair with promises that she would make him the greatest maker of beautiful things that the village had ever seen. And because of his master’s lies, he believed he needed the Queen’s help, and he went to her, and she named her price, that he would spend the rest of his days with her under the mountain, and never come back.”
“Did he come back?” The boy asked.
Galina answered with a thin smile and kept speaking. “But the girl he had vowed to marry did not believe he had run from their wedding. She knew where he had gone, and who he must be with. She wrapped herself in every warm thing she could find, she tied layers of old wool rags tight around her feet, and she marched to the mountain through a day darker than night.”
“Did she find him?” her grandson asked.
“Not at first. But she found the cave of flowers, beautiful flowers made from stone, made by men who the Queen took. And she shouted, and shouted, and shouted that she wanted the boy she loved back.”
Almost, almost, she felt no pang of regret. She ached so much to tell, to unburden, and this was the only way she knew to safely vent that terrible pressure. And so she went on.
“And finally the Queen appeared. She was like a woman and a dragon both, tall with eyes bright as fire and robes that gleamed. She was fiery too, like a dragon, because she was angry, because the boy wanted to be set free, wanted to break his promise.
“The Queen told the girl that she could have her betrothed back, but he would forget all he had learned from her. The girl begged her not to do this, because she feared he would be so unhappy at losing his skills that he would seek the Queen again. And the Queen told her for this to be so she must have something else in exchange. She knew the girl was with child, and she said she had always wanted a child of her very own.
“The girl cried and cried, but agreed to the bargain, and this made the Queen angrier, because she wanted the girl to refuse. She told the girl her daughter’s name and taunted her by telling her that some day, when it was too late, she would give her daughter back—”
“Mom!” Irene stood in the hall, arms akimbo. “How awful! You know that’s not how the story goes.”
Galina regarded her daughter coolly. “Must I bind myself to those ridiculous translations you read him?”
Irene rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to make it so dismal. I just don’t want you scaring Sam.”
“I’m not scared!” her son protested.
Then Daniel opened the patio door and stumbled into the room. His dark eyes scanned the walls, never settling, never finding a focal point.
He clutched a small painting in both hands — an impressionistic rendition of a pale-haired girl standing before a trellis of hyacinth bean. The paint was still wet. Some of it had smeared across the front of his sweatshirt.
“Mr. Brodsky?” called a voice. A worried-looking mouse of a girl came in behind him, a bewildered student no older than fourteen.
Danilo held the portrait toward Galina, mouth working, sound fighting to come out.
“What’s going on?” blurted Irene. She had to shout again before the girl spoke.
“My assignment. That girl out in the garden. She posed for me and I painted her. When I brought it to him . . . .” There were tears on her cheeks. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“What girl?” demanded Irene, as Galina regarded the oval face, the dun dress, the hair like snow. Her own face turned pale before her eyes narrowed.
“He’ll be all right,” she snapped. Then, to her daughter, “Take her to the kitchen phone so she can call her parents to pick her up. Lessons are over.”
The student started to protest, but Irene had already moved to intercept. She shot her mother a troubled glance as she pushed the sputtering girl ahead of her through the hallway. Sam began to cry, no doubt from seeing his beloved grandfather in such a state, but tending to him had to wait. Galina closed the distance to her husband, took the painting away from him without a word. She followed her daughter down the hall, descended the basement stairs.
Daniel shook and rubbed at his arms as if he had just come in from a blizzard. Then noticed his grandson sitting alone, sobbing.
He didn’t understand how he’d gotten from the garden to the den, but what good would it do to let Sam see his fear? A graying giant, he lumbered to the boy, patted his shoulder with a huge but gentle hand. “There now,” he said. “No need for worries. There’s nothing to cry about. Nothing at all.”
On a night when clouds hung low enough to shroud the mountaintop, Daniel stumbled naked and wet down the central hallway of the home built by his own hands.
He moved at a speed unsafe for his sagging weight and softened bones. He skidded and caromed against a riverstone wall — every stone in it arranged to suit his will — and barked his elbow. He took no notice, didn’t stop until he reached the basement door, his hand gripping the knob as if it were an extension of the power that gripped him.
Behind him a snail trail of water led backward to the bathroom, where the overhead light still shone, the hot tub jets still bubbled. In the condensation on the mirror, the frantic streaks made by his fingers still remained, not yet filled in by the steam, the space he’d wiped clear to stare goggle-eyed at a figure with hair like snow.
He opened the door to the stairwell and groped for the light switch. Right as he found it, his wet feet slipped and he fell. His shadow thrashed before him, crazy partner in a dance of pain. The cement floor that broke his fall offered no other mercy.
He lay for some time on that surface that he had troweled smooth so many years ago. What he at first took to be the rattle of his own breath sharpened into a different sound, a creature scuttling toward him across the hard floor. He looked up, did a double-take to see a young girl standing in silhouette at the top of the stairs, peering down at him through a snow-white cascade of hair.
The apparition distracted him from the creature’s approach, until it flicked its tongue against his ear.
He cried out and turned his head, raised a pain-wracked arm to ward off whatever attack was coming, but the creature had scurried away. He caught a glint off shiny green scales as it sidewound into the darkness.
His eyes stayed fixed on the point where the creature vanished. He didn’t move, his body an archipelago of pains small and large.
The thing had gone into the storage room, that tomb for hundreds of cast off children born of pastels and pigment and clays and canvas and stone. His unfinished, imperfect offspring.
If he shouted, if he could manage even a wordless scream, perhaps Galina would hear him, even in this house he’d built on the mountaintop with its sturdy stone walls.
Instead, after a long silence broken only by the voices that clamored in his head, he started to pull himself in the direction the creature had gone.
He dragged his broken body into the dark.
no place, no year
Dreaming, Galina shivers feverish on a metal floor, in the filthy cargo hold of a ship bound for South America, while her young husband holds her wrapped in blankets and cries, leaves only to beg the hard-faced crewmen for a damp cloth.
She shivered naked on the stone in a freezing cold cave, hearing her sweet love call her name from a place she cannot see, the warmth of his arms denied her.
The abyss gapes hungry above her and the Queen sidewinds across it in her glittering finery, tarnished copper scales, eyes like lakes set afire. Talons flex, the curving gold weapons of a monster that listened to a boy’s piping in a mosquito-swarmed field, and longed.
Would that Galina had gone to him when he played, would that she had taken a rock and crushed the entranced lizard when it was small and distracted — when she was vulnerable, far away from her kingdom, green scales speckled by the sun.
Dreaming, Galina shouts, “Leave me alone!”
I give back what I took. I take back what I gave.
Then she’s no longer dreaming. Beside her the bedside clock flashes the witching hour. She knows immediately that Daniel’s not in the room, has never gotten into bed with her.
She pads from the bedroom, heart laboring faster as she calls his name and hears no reply. She peers down the lighted basement stairs, sees the blood at the bottom, and where that leads, hurries to the storage room as panic thrashes in her chest.
With long rows of metal-framed wooden storage bins to either side of her, she gropes in the center of the room for the pull chain that will throw on the light. She calls Daniel’s name again, hears nothing.
She finds the chain, pulls, and the first blinding arc of light reveals a girl with head haloed in white, standing just inches away.
But the girl is gone — and her husband lies sprawled in an aisle between two of the bins, bone jutting from a torn and bleeding knee, naked flesh blackened with bruises. He raises his head, face frozen in an agonized, twisted scowl.
He found them: the paintings made by the students who saw the white-haired girl in the garden, who painted her portrait — always the same age, the same dress, the same oval face and snow-blond hair, no matter what the year. Twenty-one in all that Galina took from his confused hands. They’re strewn around him, some smeared with his blood.
She’d always known who it was who smiled shyly from the canvases, wanting so badly to be seen, to know she wasn’t forgotten. At first Galina had thought it cruel, how the Queen used their daughter’s ghost to taunt them. But she determined to never show rage, never weep. Why should she ever give her tormentor such gifts?
She had kept every portrait, stacked them on their sides on a bottom shelf among these sturdy units her husband had erected.
It never mattered that they were in plain view. Daniel couldn’t see them.
How did he find them in the dark?
Running is beyond her at her age, but at the children’s insistence they had a phone installed downstairs, and that’s what she steps toward when the sudden pain in her belly doubles her over, forces her to her knees.
A flicker in the corner of her vision, a sinuous strand of green.
A superheated stone burns inside her. The pain surges, brings her to the floor.
The ceiling fades. Above it space shines black. She looks up at the figure unfolding its limbs in that space, and even in her agony she snarls defiance. She addresses the Queen in Russian, her voice that of a woman pierced by a spear. “I cannot fight your power. I never could. Whatever it is that your heart demands you do to me — do it. Then, please, trouble us no more.”
Like a flag the vision furls and slides away.
Despite the pebble burning white hot in her abdomen, she makes the journey to the phone, an ordeal of just a few feet that feels like hours, days, the remainder of a lifetime.
He lies in his bed, kept alive by tubes and tenderly held spoonfuls. Other hands move him, keep him free of bedsores. When he speaks, he hears the words in his head, but the sounds that come from his mouth are the unsculpted squawks of a baby.
He remembers now — he remembers Tamara, the stone baby, the girl with hair of snow. When Galina sits beside him, keeping him company, reading to him from the paper or from a long Russian novel, the girl is there too, resting her head on her mother’s shoulder, listening.
He wants to tell his wife that the long-delayed birth did not banish their first child, it freed her, and now wherever Galina goes she follows. She is waiting for the end, when her mother will see her, and at last they will embrace.
But he cannot tell her. There is a wall between them, a barrier of stone and cold silence. There is a wall between his mind and his useless tongue, between his anger and his limp hands. He cannot carve the wall, cannot shape it in any way.
He remembers now — he remembers that he played the reeds. He could play again, if his body would move. He is frozen as he was in the cave, unable to speak as his beautiful and beloved Galina lowered her hood to reveal her wind-burned face and made her impossible demands of his unmerciful and envious jailor.
But now, in his fugue of memory and delusion, her eyes find his in the cave wall, and she says without speaking, It was a terrible sacrifice I made for you, my Danilo, but in the end it was just one of many, so, so many.
Choose one of the following: Mike Allen is (1) the editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix; (2) the editor of the poetry journal Mythic Delirium, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary with the publication of a Neil Gaiman poem; (3) a Nebula Award-nominated short story writer with new work upcoming in the anthologies Sky Whales and Other Wonders and Cthulhu’s Reign; (4) a three-time winner of the Rhysling Award for best speculative poem of the year, with more than two hundred poems published in places like Strange Horizons and Goblin Fruit; (5) the arts and theatre reporter for his home city’s daily newspaper; (6) about, as of this writing, to celebrate 17 years of marriage to his tolerant wife, Anita, as well as – why not? – six years ownership of a goofy dog named Loki; (7) a middle-aged white guy with a not-so middle-sized paunch and a very manly beard. Take your answer, multiply it by 26, divide it by Planck’s constant, round the result to the nearest real number, count down that many cards from the top in a Thoth Tarot deck, turn that card over and record the result. Wrong answers will be recorded as black marks in both the Book of Life and the Book of the Dead.
Image: Alenushka, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881.