The Forest, Late Evening
I didn't always dream about my family. Still, they haunted me for the longest time. Their smiles. Their voices. How they looked when they died. But of all the things I remember, the strongest memory is a story.
Of the stories my mother told me, only one did I love hearing over and over. I had not known it would become my story-the one I would live day after day. Here in the small hut with its tiny windows and smooth, wooden floor. The small bed in which I sleep, its blue and red cotton quilt tucked neatly around me. My matroyshka nestled on the soft goose-down pillow. The matroyshka-the doll my mother gave me near the end, the one she told me to hold tight, even though she knew I was seventeen and far, far too old for such things. A wooden nesting doll, its figure repeated itself smaller and smaller, each hidden inside the other, the last one so tiny it almost disappeared in the palm of my hand.
I understand now what it is to be hidden like that-so tucked away that no one even knows I am here.
In the story, there was a girl. Her name was Vasilisa, and she was very beautiful. Her parents loved her. Her life was good. But things changed. Her mother died. Her father remarried. And the new wife-well, she wasn't so fond of Vasilisa. So she sent her to the hut of the fearsome witch Baba Yaga to fetch some light for their cabin. And that was supposed to be that. For no one returned from Baba Yaga's. But Vasilisa had the doll her dying mother gave her. And the doll-because this was a fairy tale and so dolls could talk-told her what to do. Helped her get that light she came for and escape. And when Vasilisa returned home, that same light burned so brightly that it killed the wicked stepmother who sent Vasilisa to that horrible place. Vasilisa remained unharmed. She married a handsome prince. And lived happily ever after.
When I listened to my mother tell the story, I would pretend I was Vasilisa the Brave. In my imagination, I heeded the advice of the doll. I outwitted the evil Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch who kept her enemies' heads on pikes outside her hut. Who rode the skies in her mortar and howled to the heavens and skittered about on bony legs. Who ate up lost little girls with her iron teeth.
But the story was not as I imagined. Not as my mother told it. I am not particularly brave. And it was not an evil stepmother who sent me to this hut in the forest. I came because I believed him. The man I trusted with all my heart. The one who told me I was special. That I alone would save the Romanovs by letting him save me.
Oh, yes, I believed. Even as the Bolsheviks forced us to the house in Ekaterinburg. Even as I sewed jewels into my clothing so no one would find them. And even on that July day when we were all herded like cattle down into that basement.
Because that is what seventeen-year-old girls do. They believe.
But that was all so long ago. At least, I think it was. In the hut, it is hard to say. Time works differently here. We are always on the move. The two hen's legs that support the hut are always scrabbling for a new destination. Keeping us from whoever might be searching. If anyone still cares to search.
At first, I thought I'd go mad. And perhaps I have. But most days, I convince myself that I do not mind it so much. I sweep and sew and fill the kettle in the fireplace and bring sweet, hot tea to Auntie Yaga. Auntie, who rocks in her chair, her black cat settled in her lap, and smiles with those great iron teeth-and sometimes, as my mother did, tells stories.
"They don't really know me," Auntie says. She takes a long sip of tea and clasps the cup with two huge, brown, gnarled hands. It is those hands that scare me most-that have always scared me-and so my heart skitters in my chest. The fear is less now than it used to be, but its fingers still run along my belly until I want to scream and scream even though I know now that it will make no difference. That what I did, that what brought me here, made no difference. But that, of course, is yet another story.
"They say they know what evil is," Auntie Yaga continues. "But they do not. They think it is all so very simple. That I am a witch, and that is that. But it is not as they tell it. I am not what they think I am."
Listening to Auntie Yaga now, I really do understand. None of it is simple. It is not like the stories my mother told. Not like what he told me.
"You will save them, Anastasia," he said. "You just need to be brave. I'll take care of the rest."
Only that wasn't simple either. Or perhaps it was. A simple revolution. A simple set of murders. My family, destroyed one by one in front of my eyes. Their screams. Their cries for mercy. And a storm in a room where no storm could exist. A thick, black cloud that deepened and swirled and cracked open the ceiling. A giant pair of hands-the same hands that now clutch a cup of sweet tea-that closed about me and carried me here. And suddenly, I knew how not simple it all really was.