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By Catherynne M. Valente, Liz Gorinsky
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Catherynne M. Valente
All rights reserved.
Three Husbands Come to Gorokhovaya Street
In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.
This would be cause for most girls to be very gently closed up in their rooms until they ceased to think such alarming things, but Marya Morevna had seen all three of her sisters' husbands from her window before they knocked at the great cherrywood door, and thus she was as certain of her own fate as she was certain of the color of the moon.
The first came when Marya was only six, and her sister Olga was tall as she was fair, her golden hair clapped back like a hay-roll in autumn. It was a silvery damp day, and long, thin clouds rolled up onto their roof like neat cigarettes. Marya watched from the upper floor as birds gathered in the oak trees, sniping and snapping at the first and smallest drops of rain, which all winged creatures know are the sweetest, like tiny grapes bursting on the tongue. She laughed to see the rooks skirmish over the rain, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like needle points. One of them, a fat black fellow, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya's window, fell hard — thump, bash! — onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome black uniform, his buttons flashing like raindrops, his nose large and cruelly curved.
The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna's mother blushed under his gaze.
"I have come for the girl in the window," he said with a clipped, sweet voice. "I am Lieutenant Gratch of the Tsar's Personal Guard. I have many wonderful houses full of seed, many wonderful fields full of grain, and I have more dresses than she could wear, even if she changed her gown at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life."
"You must mean Olga," said Marya's mother, her hand fluttering to her throat. "She is the oldest and most beautiful of all my daughters."
And so Olga, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of fallen apples and not the street, was brought to the door. She was filled like a wineskin with the rich sight of her handsome young man in his handsome black uniform, and kissed him very chastely on the cheeks. They walked together down Gorokhovaya Street, and he bought for her a golden hat with long black feathers tucked into its brim.
When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Gratch looked up into the violet sky and sighed. "This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that that one is not meant for me."
And so Olga went gracefully to the estates of Lieutenant Gratch, and wrote prettily worded letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs built castles and her datives sprung up like well-tended roses.
The second husband came when Marya was nine, and her sister Tatiana was sly and ruddy as a fox, her sharp grey eyes clapping upon every fascinating thing. Marya Morevna sat at her window embroidering the hem of a christening dress for Olga's second son. It was spring, and the morning rain had left their long, thin street slick and sparkling, jeweled with wet pink petals. Marya watched from the upper floor as once more the birds gathered in the great oak tree, sniping and snapping for the soaked and wrinkled cherry blossoms, which every winged creature knows are the most savory of all blossoms, like spice cakes melting on the tongue. She laughed to see the plovers scuffle over the flowers, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like knifepoints. One of them, a little brown fellow, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya's window, fell hard — thump, bash! — onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome brown uniform with a long white sash, his buttons flashing like sunshine, his mouth round and kind.
The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna's mother smiled under his gaze.
"I am Lieutenant Zuyok of the White Guard," he said, for the face of the world had changed. "I have come for the girl in the window. I have many wonderful houses full of fruits, many wonderful fields full of worms, and I have more jewels than she could wear, even if she changed her rings at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life."
"You must mean Tatiana," said Marya's mother, pressing her hand to her breast. "She is the second oldest and second most beautiful of my daughters."
And so Tatiana, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of apple blossoms and not the street, came to the door. She was filled like a silk balloon with the flaming sight of her handsome young man in his handsome brown uniform, and kissed him, not very chastely at all, on the mouth. They walked together through Gorokhovaya Street, and he bought for her a white hat with long chestnut-colored feathers tucked into its brim.
When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Zuyok looked up into the turquoise sky and sighed. "This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that one is not meant for me."
And so Tatiana went happily to the estates of Lieutenant Zuyok, and wrote sophisticated letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs danced in square patterns and her datives were laid out like tables set for feasting.
The third husband came when Marya was twelve, and her sister Anna was slim and gentle as a fawn, her blush quicker than shadows passing. Marya Morevna sat at her window embroidering the collar of a party dress for Tatiana's first daughter. It was winter, and the snow on Gorokhovaya Street piled high and mounded, like long frozen barrows. Marya watched from the upper floor as once again the birds gathered in the great oak tree, sniping and snapping for the last autumn nuts, stolen from squirrels and hidden in bark-cracks, which every winged creature knows are the most bitter of all nuts, like old sorrows sitting heavy on the tongue. She laughed to see the shrikes scuffle over the acorns, and as she did, the flock turned as one to look at her, their eyes like bayonet points. One of them, a stately grey fellow with a red stripe at his cheek, leaned perilously forward on his green branch and, without taking his gaze from Marya's window, fell hard — thump, bash! — onto the streetside. But the little bird bounced up, and when he righted himself, he was a handsome young man in a handsome grey uniform with a long red sash, his buttons flashing like streetlamps, his eyes narrow with a wicked cleverness.
The young man knocked at the great cherrywood door, and Marya Morevna's mother frowned under his gaze.
"I am Lieutenant Zhulan of the Red Army," he said, for the face of the world had begun to struggle with itself, unable to decide on its features. "I have come for the girl in the window. I have many wonderful houses which I share equally among my fellows, many wonderful rivers full of fish which are shared equally among all those with nets, and I have more virtuous books than she could read, even if she read a different one at morning, evening, and midnight each day of her life."
"You must mean Anna," said Marya's mother, her hand firmly at her hip. "She is the third oldest and third most beautiful of my daughters."
And so Anna, who had indeed sat at the first-floor window, which faced the garden full of bare branches and not the street, was brought to the door. She was filled like a pail of water with the sweet sight of her handsome young man in his handsome grey uniform, and with a terrible shyness allowed him to kiss only her hand. They walked together through the newly named Kommissarskaya Street, and he bought for her a plain grey cap with a red star on the brim.
When they returned in the evening, Lieutenant Zhulan looked up into the black sky and sighed. "This is not the girl in the window. But I will love her as though she was, for I see now that that one is not meant for me."
And so Anna went dutifully to the estates of Lieutenant Zhulan, and wrote properly worded letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs were distributed fairly among the nouns, and her datives asked for no more than they required.CHAPTER 2
The Red Scarf
In that city by the sea which was now firmly called Petrograd and did not even remember, under pain of punishment, having been called St. Petersburg, in that long, thin house on that long, thin street, Marya Morevna sat by her window, knitting a little coat for Anna's first son. She was fifteen years, fifteen days, and fifteen hours of age, the fourth oldest and fourth prettiest. She waited calmly for the birds to gather in the summer trees, waited for them to do battle over thick crimson cherries, and for one of them to lean perilously forward on his branch, so very far forward — but no bird came, and she began to worry for herself.
She let her long black hair hang unbraided. She walked barefoot over the floorboards of the house on Gorokhovaya Street to preserve her only shoes for the long walk to school — and Marya, like a child whose widowed mother has married again, could never remember to call the long, thin street by its new name, having known it as Gorokhovaya for all her youth. There were other families in the house now, of course, for no fine roof such as this should be kept to one selfish patronym.
It was obscene to do so, Marya's father agreed.
It is surely better this way, Marya's mother said, nodding.
Twelve mothers and twelve fathers were stacked into the long, thin house, each with four children, drawing the old cobalt-and-silver curtains down the center of rooms to make labyrinths of twelve dining rooms, twelve sitting rooms, twelve bedrooms. It could be said, and was, that Marya Morevna had twelve mothers and twelve fathers, and so did all the children of that long, thin house. But all of Marya's mothers laughed at her aimless manner. All her fathers looked troubled at her wild, loose hair. All their children stole her biscuits from the communal table. They did not like her, and she did not like them. They were in her house, in her things, and though it was surely virtuous to share, her stomach had not marched in any demonstration, and did not understand its patriotic duty. And if they thought her aimless, if they thought her a bit mad, let them. It meant they left her alone. Marya was not aimless, anyway. She was thinking.
It takes a very long time to think through something as peculiar as the birds. One cannot simply leave it to the usual bash and bustle of memory and its underhanded tactics. And so, as it became clear that no shrike would come and take her away from her overcrowded house, the incessant noise of all those Blodnieks cooking or Dyachenkos fixing up the staircase; away from her hair growing thinner and more brittle as the communal table had to stretch further and further, from Comrade Piakovsky's sweaty staring in her direction; Marya's mind marshaled itself to the task of sorting out the whole business. No matter what she appeared to do — sweeping out the leaves or studying her history or helping one of her mothers sew a shirt — her heart raced with problem of the birds, trying to outrun it into someplace where everything could make sense again.
Marya pinned out her childhood like a butterfly. She considered it the way a mathematician considers an equation. Given: The world is ordered in such a way that birds may be expected to turn into husbands at a moment's notice and no one may comment upon it all. What conclusions can be drawn? That everyone already knows this, and it is only unusual to me. Or else only I saw it happen, and no one else knows that the world is like that. Since neither her mother nor her father nor Svetlana Tikhonovna nor Yelena Grigorievna had ever made reference to their husbands having been birds, Marya rejected the first conclusion. However, the second conclusion led only to more delicate and upsetting hypotheses.
First resolution: Perhaps one was not meant to see what a husband looked like before he made himself more or less presentable. Perhaps the republic of husbands was a strange and frightening place full of not only birds, but bats too, and lizards, and bears, and worms, and other beasts waiting to fall out of a tree and into a wedding ring. Perhaps Marya had broken a rule of some sort, and visited that country without papers. Were all husbands like that? Marya shuddered. Was her father like that? Was Comrade Piakovsky like that, following her with his wolfish eyes? What of wives, then? Would she turn into something else when she married, the way a bird could turn into a handsome young man?
Second resolution: Rules or no rules, it was certainly better to see these things than not to see them. Marya felt that she had a secret, a very good secret, and that if she took care of it, the secret would take care of her. She had seen the world naked, caught out. Her sisters had been rescued from the city as beautiful girls are often rescued from unpleasant things, but they did not know what their husbands really were. They were missing vital information. Marya saw right away that this made a tilted kind of marriage, and she wanted no part of that. I will never be without information, she determined. I will do better than my sisters. If a bird or any other beast comes out of that uncanny republic where husbands are grown, I will see him with his skin off before I agree to fall in love. For this was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.
When Marya saw something extraordinary again, she would be ready. She would be clever. She would not let it rule her or trick her. She would do the tricking, if tricking was called for.
But for a long while she did not see anything but the winter coming on and folk squabbling over bread, and her own arms growing so skinny. Marya tried not to come to the third resolution, but it hung there in her heart until she could not ignore it. Birds did not come for her because she was not as good as her sisters. Fourth prettiest, too lost in her own thoughts to steal back bread from the horrible little twins with their matching, cruel laughters. They did not come for her because she had seen them without their costumes on. Perhaps marriage was meant to be tilted, and she was spoiled for everything now, all because she had spied where she ought not to have. Still, she was not sorry. If the world is divided into seeing and not seeing, Marya thought, I shall always choose to see.
But thoughts are not food. Alone and birdless, Marya Morevna wept for her sisters who had gone, for her empty stomach, for the overfull house, which she could hear groaning at night like a woman laboring to bring twelve children into the world all at once.
* * *
Only once did Marya Morevna try to share her secret. If it was wrong to hoard a house, surely it was wrong to hoard knowledge. She was younger then, only thirteen, past the plovers and the shrikes. It was at thirteen years old that Marya Morevna learned how to keep a secret, and that secrets are jealous things, permitting no fraternization.
In those days, Marya Morevna walked to school with her red scarf tied around her neck, like all the other children. She loved her scarf — in the midst of the dreary house, turning grey with so many people scrubbing their laundry in it and sweating in it and boiling potatoes in it, her scarf was bright and gorgeous — and it meant that she belonged. It marked her as part of the young workers' committee, one of the loyal, one of the true. It meant she was one of the good children at school, the children of the revolution, handing out pamphlets or flowers with her classmates on street corners, adults smiling at her scarf, at her goodness.
Excerpted from Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, Liz Gorinsky. Copyright © 2011 Catherynne M. Valente. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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