Nina. Natasha. Olga. Three women united by one terrifying secret. But only one of them has killed to keep it.
Natasha Doroshenko, a Ukrainian woman who has been convicted for the attempted murder of her Danish ex-fiancé, escapes police custody on her way to an interrogation in Copenhagen’s police headquarters. That same night, the ex-fiancé’s frozen, tortured body is found in a car. It isn’t the first time the young Ukrainian woman has lost a partner to violent ends: her first husband was murdered three years earlier in Kiev in the same manner.
Danish Red Cross nurse Nina Borg has followed Natasha’s case for years now, ever since Natasha first took refuge at her crisis center. Nina just can’t see the young mother as a vicious killer. But in her effort to protect Natasha’s daughter and discover the truth, Nina realizes there is much she didn’t know about Natasha and her past. The mystery has long and bloody roots, going back to a terrible famine that devastated Stalinist Ukraine in 1934, when a ten-year-old girl with the voice of a nightingale sang her family into shallow graves.
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“Go on,” says a man’s voice.
“I’m tired.” An older woman answers, clearly uncomfortable and dismissive.
“But it’s so exciting.”
“Exciting?” there’s a sharp lash of bitterness to her reaction. “A bit of Saturday entertainment. Is that what it is for you?”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.”
They are both speaking Ukrainian, he quickly and informally, she more hesitantly.
In the background you can hear occasional beeps from an electronic game.
“It’s important for posterity.”
The old woman laughs now, a hard and unhappy laughter.
“Posterity,” she says. “Do you mean the child? Isn’t she better off not knowing?”
“If that’s how you see it. We should be getting home anyway.”
“No,” the word is abrupt. “Not yet. You can stay a little longer.”
“You said you were tired,” says the man.
“No. Not…. that tired.”
“I don’t mean to press you.”
“No, I know that. You just thought it was exciting.”
“Forget that I said that. It was stupid.”
“No, no. Children like exciting stories. Fairytales.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something real. Something you experienced yourself.”
Again a short pause.
“No, let me tell you a story,” the old woman then says suddenly. “A fairytale. A little fairytale from Stalin land. A suitable bedtime story for our little girl. Are you listening, my sweet?”
Beep, beep, beep-beep. An unclear mumbling from the child. Apparently she isn’t really paying much attention, but that doesn’t stop the old woman.
“Once upon a time there were two sisters, “she begins, clearly as if reciting. “Two sisters who both sang so beautifully that the nightingale had to stop singing when it heard them. First one sang for the emperor and in that way caused many people’s undoing. The other one resented that and she began to sing too “
“Who are you talking about?” the man asks. “Is it you? Is it someone we know?”
The old woman ignores him. There’s a harsh ring to her voice. As if she is using the story to punish him.
“When the emperor heard her, his heart grew inflamed and he had to own her,” she continued. “Come to me,” he begged. You can be sure he begged.
“Come to me and be my nightingale. I’ll give you gold and beautiful clothes and a servant for every finger.”
Here the old woman stops. It’s as if she doesn’t really feel like going on, and the man no longer presses her. But the story has its own relentless logic, and she has to finish it.
“At first she refused. She rejected the emperor. But he persisted. “What should I give you then?” he asked, because he had learned that everything has a price. “I will not come to you,” said the other sister, ‘before you give me my evil sister’s head on a platter.’”
In the background the beeping sounds from the child’s game have ceased. Now there is only an attentive silence.
“When the emperor saw that a heart as black as sin hid behind the beautiful song,” the old woman continues, still using her fairytale voice: “He not only killed the first sister, but also the nightingale’s father and mother and grandfather and grandmother and whole family. ‘That’s what you get for your jealousy,’ he said and threw her out.”
The child utters a sound, a frightened squeak. The old woman doesn’t seem to notice.
“Tell me, “ she whispers. “Which of them is me?”
“You’re both alive,” says the man. “So something in the story must be a lie.”
“In Stalin land, Stalin decides what is true and what’s a lie,” says the old woman. “And I said that it was a Stalin fairytale.”
“Daddy,” says the child. “I want to go home now…”
Natasha started; she had been sitting silently, looking out the window to one side where Copenhagen gliding by in frozen, stiff and gray colors. Dirty house fronts. Dirty snow and a dirty low sky where the sun had barely managed to rise about the rooftops in the course of the day. The car’s tires hissed in the soap-like mixture of snow, ice and salt which covered the asphalt. None of it had anything to do with her, and she noted it all without really seeing it.
“You speak Danish, don’t you?”
The policeman in the passenger seat had turned toward her and offered a little, blue-white pack, and she nodded and took a piece. Said thank you. He smiled at her and turned back into his seat.
This wasn’t the “bus” as they called it – the usual transport from Vestre Prison to the court—that Natasha had been on. It was an ordinary patrol car; the police were ordinary Danish policemen. One, the one who had given her the gum, was a young man, thirty at the most. The other was old and fat and seemed nice enough. Danish police had kind eyes. Even that time with Michael and the knife, they had spoken calmly and kindly to her as if she hadn’t been a criminal they were arresting but rather a patient going to the hospital.
One day, before too long, two of these kind men would put her and Katerina on a flight back to the Ukraine, but that’s not what was happening today. Not yet. It couldn’t be. Her asylum case had not yet been decided, and Katerina was not with her. Besides, you didn’t need to go through Copenhagen to get to the airport, that much she knew. This was the way to police headquarters.
Natasha placed her hands on her light blue jeans, rubbed them back and forth hard across the rough fabric, opened and closed them quickly. Finally she made an effort to let her fists rest on her knees while she looked out at Copenhagen and tried to figure out if the trip into the city brought her closer to or farther from Katerina. During the last months, the walls and the physical distance that separated them had become an obsession. She was closer to her daughter when she ate in the canteen than when she was in her cell. The trip to the yard was also several meters in the wrong direction, but still felt soothing because it was as if she was breathing the same air as Katerina. On the library computer she had found Google Street View and dragged the flat little man in to the parking lot in front of the prison, further along Copenhagen’s streets and up the highway entrance ramp to northern Sealand. It was as if she could walk next to him the whole way and see houses and store fronts and trees and cars, but when he reached Kulhus Camp, he couldn’t go any further. Here she had to make do with the grubby satellite image of the camp’s flat barrack roofs. She had stared at the pictures until she went nearly insane. She had imagined that one of the tiny dots was Katerina. Dreamed of getting closer. From the prison, it was 23 kilometers to Kulhus Camp. From the center of Copenhagen it was probably a few kilometers more, but on the other hand, there were neither walls nor barbed wire between her and the camp right now. There was only the policemen’s thin steel shell, air and wind, kilometers of asphalt and later fields and wet forest floor.
She knew it wouldn’t do any good, but still stretched out her hand and let it touch the young policeman’s shoulder.
“You still don’t know anything?” she asked in English.
His eyes met hers in the rear view mirror. His gaze was apologetic but also indifferent. He shook his head.
“We’re just chauffeurs,” he said. “We aren’t usually told stuff like that.”
She leaned back in her seat and started to rub her palms against her jeans. Opened and closed her hands. Neither of the two policemen knew what she was doing at police headquarters. They had nothing for her except chewing gum.
The case with Michael was long finished, so that probably wasn’t what it was about, and her asylum case had never yet required interviews interrogations anywhere but Kulhus Camp.
Natasha felt the fear make her stomach contract, so she had to shit and pee at the same time. If she had just had Katerina there. If they had just been together. At night in the prison she had the most terrible nightmares about Katerina alone in the children’s barrack, surrounded by flames.
Or Katerina making her way alone into the swamp behind the camp.
It was unnatural for a mother not to be able to reach out and touch her child. Natasha knew she was behaving exactly like the cows when their calves were taken from them in the fall, and they stood, their shrill bellowing lasting for hours,, without knowing which way to direct their sorrow. She had tried to relieve her restlessness with cold logic. She and Katerina were not separated forever, she told herself. She came to visit once in a while with Nina, the lady from Kulhus Camp, who reassured Natasha every time that she would personally take care of Katerina. Rina, the Danes called her. They thought that was her name because that’s what the papers said. But Rina wasn’t even a name. It was what was left over when a little man in Dublin had done what he could to veil the original text.
Maybe that’s why she was here? Had they discovered what the man in Dublin had done?
Her dread of the future rose like the tide. Her jaw muscles tightened painfully, and when she crushed the compact piece of gum between her teeth, everything in her mouth felt sticky and metallic.