When a young Russian dancer named Saldana Tarasova comes to Natalie’s office claiming to be her cousin, and providing details about her grandmother that no stranger could know, Natalie must face a surprising truth: her grandmother, Katarina Melnikova, is still very much alive. She escaped from the labor camp, married a native Siberian, and had another child, Saldana’s mother. Natalie is thrilled to think that her Russian family is reaching out and that Vera may be able to reunite with her mother after so many years. In fact, Saldana has a darker motive for making contact. Suggesting that her family is in grave danger from Putin’s government, she pleads for Natalie’s help to defect. Unwilling to break the law, Natalie puts her off. Then the unthinkable happens, and Natalie is drawn step by step into a web of family secrets that will ultimately pit her against Russian security forces and even her own government.
How far will Natalie go to find Katerina M. and satisfy her mother’s deepest wish? How much will she risk to protect her Russian familyand her own countryfrom a dangerous international threat? Masterfully plotted and beautifully written, FINDING KATARINA M. takes the reader on an extraordinary journey across Siberiato reindeer herding camps, Russian prisons, Sakha villages, and parties with endless vodka toastswhile it explores what it means to be loyal to one’s family, one’s country, and ultimately to oneself.
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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"There's one more person to see you," my assistant said, peeking her head into my office. Her straw purse hung from her shoulder — a sure sign that she intended to head home after we spoke, which she had every right to do since it was an hour after closing time. We'd had a busy afternoon, with patients backed up in the waiting room, most of them needing routine care, one person, unfortunately, very sick.
"Not another emergency, I hope." I had a work function that evening and had to get home in time to change and take a cab downtown. Also, I was tired.
"Doesn't look that way. But how would I know? She won't tell me her name or what she wants, only that she needs to see you. She's been waiting all afternoon."
I groaned, fearing a lengthy consultation. But I was also intrigued. People who sit in waiting rooms for hours to get what they want tend to impress me.
"All right. Send her in."
The young woman who appeared in my doorway was tiny, no more than a hundred pounds, early twenties maybe, with Eurasian features and glossy black hair that fell freely across bare arms. Her yellow cotton dress was wrinkled and quite plain compared to what the generally well-off patients at the medical center usually wore, and she teetered on the kind of high platform sandals that were in vogue that summer and that were probably keeping the orthopedists busy. One of her toes was wrapped in a grubby band-aid.
She was fidgety, could barely meet my eyes. My first thought was that she must be a shy former patient with symptoms that embarrassed her, yet she didn't look familiar.
"Are you Mrs. Natalie March?" she asked softly, managing even in that short sentence to insert several guttural consonants where they didn't belong. A Russian accent.
"I am," I said in a light tone, hoping it would help her relax.
She blushed. "I am sorry for problem. I am sorry English language is not good."
"We could speak Russian if you prefer." I'd grown up speaking Russian with my immigrant parents. My fluency made me a popular physician among Russians living in the Washington, D.C. area — business people, embassy workers, diplomats and their families. But none called me missus.
When I asked if she was a patient with the practice, she said no, that her business was personal. Her Russian was spiced with a subtle regional accent I couldn't place.
"Have a seat," I said, indicating two leather chairs facing my desk.
She perched gingerly on the one closest to the door and began twisting a small silver ring on her finger. Her hands were well-made, with tapered fingers and defined muscles. In fact, every part of her anatomy was beautifully formed and proportioned: slender ankles, toned calves, sleek arms, elegant neck. Her body gave the impression of having been sculpted by a master craftsman with a keen appreciation for the beauty of the human form.
"My name is Saldana Tarasova," she said, so quietly I could barely hear her.
I remained silent, knowing there was more to come.
After a long pause, her dark eyes flourishes of eyeliner accentuating their rising slant, flicked up to meet mine. "I am cousin."
I offered what was probably a rather stiff smile. To the best of my knowledge, I didn't have any cousins, and now that I'd had a closer look at her, was certain we hadn't met before. The thought flashed through my mind that she might have a psychiatric disorder, in which case I'd be there all night finding the proper care for her. Or that she might be dangerous, despite her innocent appearance. I pictured the red security buzzer, now standard equipment for medical personnel at the center, tucked under the lip of my desk.
"Cousin?" I repeated. "I don't think so. You must be looking for someone else."
She dropped her gaze abruptly, blushing so deeply that her tan cheeks shaded to burnished copper. The nervous ring twisting resumed, even more torturous this time. She appeared to be fighting back tears.
I saw that my response had upset her and tried again. "I'm sorry ... Saldana, is it?"
She nodded briefly and miserably, her eyes still downcast.
"You've caught me by surprise. I don't believe I have any cousins. Maybe you could say a little more."
"My grandmother, Katarina Melnikova, is also your grandmother."
"Ah." The words were like a gentle slap across my face. Melnikova was indeed the name of my maternal grandmother who'd been sent to the gulag with her young husband in 1949.
"Yes, I know that name," I said, "though I haven't heard it spoken in a long time."
Not since I was fourteen years old, when my mother, in an awkwardly formal ceremony, showed me an old photo album she'd been keeping hidden somewhere, possibly in shame, or in the Russian penchant for secrecy that I, an American teenager, couldn't hope to understand. She had turned the old pages slowly, finally stopping at a black-and-white photo of a young couple with easy, confident smiles standing with arms linked on a city street. The woman was dressed in a wool travelling suit with a belted waist and a jaunty felt hat that perched on the back of her head; the man wore a tweed overcoat, unbuttoned, over a white shirt and thin dark tie. There was blurry Cyrillic lettering on one of the shop signs behind them.
"Those are your grandparents," she said.
I stared at the photo in bewildered surprise. I'd never seen a picture of them before and had been told almost nothing about them, only that they were Ukrainians who died when my mother was an infant. I'd always assumed that her reluctance to speak about them was due partly to the pain of having lost them and partly to the fact that, as a consequence, she knew very little about them. I'd also assumed, with no basis at all, that they'd died from natural causes.
That day, my mother told a different story. Her parents were Jehovah's Witnesses who'd been rounded up in one of Stalin's many mass deportations, forced onto a train, and shipped to the Siberian gulag where they'd presumably perished.
My surprise gave way to a potent mix of horror and grief. We were studying European history in school, so I knew that the Russian gulag was a network of prison labor camps where millions of people — some estimates as high as eighteen million — were worked to death mining gold, uranium, and tin; felling trees and shipping lumber; and building thousands of miles of roads and railways to fuel Russia's modernization. The conditions in the camps were horrible: most of the prisoners died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, exposure, or abuse. I'd read about the gulag as something that happened long ago and far away, never dreaming that my own grandparents were among the victims.
I felt dizzy from the shock, then angry. Why had my mother not told me before? Maybe she thought I was finally old enough to know something as serious as this. In that case, I wanted to respond maturely, so she would know that her faith in me was not misplaced. In those hard days after my father's death, I was always trying to be strong for her, so she would have one less thing to worry about.
The photo album was on the table in front of us, closed. My mother's eyes were misty with tears. I swallowed hard and told her that I was sorry I would never meet her parents, that I was very sorry for what they'd suffered, and what she herself had been through as a result. I said that I loved her and wanted her to be happy, and that I wanted to help her be happy however I could.
She smiled at me tenderly, brushing a strand of hair off my face. "What did I do to deserve you, Talya?"
"I love you, Mom," I whispered. I often said those words to her, and I've repeated them frequently since.
"If you want to make me happy," she said, "there's one thing you can do. I know you like to ask a lot of questions. You're only happy when you're finding things out. But I've told you everything I know. So, please, for once, just let things be. This subject is difficult for me, and I don't want to talk about it again."
I promised, of course, and kept my word. But the horrifying knowledge lived and burned inside me nonetheless. I found myself pushed into a close personal relationship with the gigantic Stalinist horror, and I knew I'd never be the same.
Now, twenty-five years later, as I sat in my corner office at the George Washington University Medical Center, the idea that one of my grandparents might have survived the gulag seemed impossible, unreal. It was probably a hoax — some kind of weird new identity theft. A demand for money was probably coming next. But how could the obviously frightened young woman sitting before me have unearthed a name that had so little history attached to it, and that I barely knew myself? And why go to so much trouble? Certainly there were easier ways to extort money from a stranger.
I studied my visitor more closely. She had high round cheeks and a small jaw, narrow dark eyes and honey-brown skin. I saw no family resemblance at all. I was on the tall side, and my features were angular.
"Where did you say you were from?" I asked.
"Yakutsk," I repeated, utterly blank. "Where's that?"
I tried to picture Siberia as a relatively normal — if chilly in winter — region of the world where young women like Saldana Tarasova ate and slept and shopped and went to school. But I couldn't manage it. My vision of Siberia was too tainted by its ugly history. To me, it was a mindscape of impenetrable darkness and killing cold; the vast icy crust at the end of the world where a good portion of history's nightmares were stored; where, until this moment, I'd been sure my grandparents' skeletons were layered with those of many others in an anonymous mass grave.
I said, "I was under the impression that Katarina Melnikova and her husband died in a prison camp."
"Grandfather did not survive; Grandmother escaped."
Escaped. The gulag camps were considered virtually escape-proof. The thinking went that if winter temperatures didn't kill people, the sheer, ungodly distances would. I couldn't help feeling a surge of interest in any person, related or not, who'd managed such a nervy, desperate feat. "She's still alive?"
"She lives in a village on the Tatta River. She's eighty-nine."
I tried to imagine this, too. The young married woman in the photo had seemed vital, energetic. There was a simple, straightforward light in her eye and a trace of pleasant humor around her mouth. Apparently, this same woman now went about her business in a Siberian village. At age eighty-nine.
"Katarina Melnikova," I repeated musingly, feeling the heavy Russian weight of the syllables on my lips. It was possible I'd never spoken her name out loud before. It was melodious and beautiful, but still nothing more than a name to me.
"How's her health?" I asked, because it was something to say.
"She has the problems old people have."
"She had more children, then. One? Two?"
"Just one. My mother, Lena. Lena Tarasova. My father lives in a different city. He has a new family," Saldana confessed quickly, getting it out of the way.
"Is your mother in Yakutsk with you?"
"Yes, we have a flat there. I have a younger brother, Mikhail, who lived with us until recently."
"Well ..." I said in a tone of finality, placing my palms flat on my desk as I usually did before I stood up. But I couldn't just end the conversation, as if it were a standard medical consultation. I had to respond differently. But how? I wasn't yet willing to accept Ms. Tarasova's statement as true. And if I did accept it, what then? It was all a little baffling.
"Well," I hemmed. "Well, I really don't know what to say. This does come as a shock. My mother will be so surprised. Why ?" I tried to keep the reproach out of my voice. "Why was she never told?"
Saldana looked down at her hands. A few seconds of awkward silence passed.
There'd been some kind of messy family business, I guessed, for which the young woman in front of me — she didn't look to be more than twenty-one — shouldn't be held responsible. But anger prickled my skin nonetheless. My mother had spent her life believing her parents were dead. She'd dragged this weighty tragedy through, so far, sixty-six years of living, as if it were a soldered ball and chain. Why on earth had Katarina Melnikova chosen to remain unknown? Didn't she care about the baby daughter she left with her brother in Kiev? And even if she had no maternal feelings at all — I saw plenty of examples of this baffling phenomenon in my practice — hadn't she been the least bit curious? I knew it wasn't fair to jump to conclusions about Katarina Melnikova, whose situation had been desperate, to say the least. Still, I was upset for my mother's sake, worried about how she would react to the good news that Katarina was alive and well, and the bad news that she'd waited until now to make herself known.
"How did you find me?" I asked my visitor.
"We knew that Grandmother gave her first child to her brother when she was arrested. My mother tracked him down, and he gave us your mother's married name. We couldn't find her address, but we found yours. Your work address, that is."
Saldana looked at me directly, her dark eyes anxious and hopeful. "I'm sorry. I should have called first, but I didn't know how you'd feel. I was afraid you wouldn't want to meet me, and I didn't want to email for fear you wouldn't reply. I couldn't risk not talking to you."
I blinked at her slowly, my mouth agape. The detail about the brother in Kiev had clinched it for me: Saldana was, must be, for real. It was simply too much to think that she would know where my mother was raised, and by whom, if her claim wasn't true. A wave of strong emotion passed through me — joy. Then another emotion poured in behind it — fear. Fear that the joy wouldn't last, that it would be stolen or destroyed somehow, before it had a chance to flower.
"How long are you in town?" I asked.
"Until tomorrow afternoon. My train back to New York leaves at four o'clock." She explained that she was in the States to perform with a ballet company as part of a cultural exchange program. The dancers had been in rehearsal all week. Their show opened on Friday, one week from today. It had a two-week run, after which she would return to Russia.
"I'd love to take you to dinner, but I have something to do tonight, a work thing I can't get out of. Can I meet you tomorrow?" She nodded eagerly.
"Where are you staying?"
She named a cheap hotel on Rhode Island Avenue.
"That's very near the Capitol Building. I'll meet you there at nine tomorrow morning, on the lawn outside the west entrance, at the bottom of all the marble steps. In the meantime, if you need anything, please call." As I jotted my cell number on the back of my business card, it occurred to me that my new-found cousin had gone to great lengths to meet me, that showing up in my office unannounced had been a risk, that she was a young person alone in a foreign country and might well be scared to death.
"I'm very glad you found me, Saldana," I said warmly. "We'll have a nice time tomorrow, yes?"
She accepted the card with two hands, as if it were a precious gift, and looked gratefully into my eyes, apparently convinced at last that she wasn't going to be turned away. "Spasiba, Natalya Marchova," she said.
The sound of my name in Russian sent an unwelcome chill through me — I had no love for the country my parents fled, despite my fluency in the language, which I saw merely as a skill I could use to reach more patients and serve them better. Like many children of immigrants, I deeply cherished my American identity.
"Call me Natalie. Come on, I'll give you a lift back to your hotel."
* * *
The evening was brilliant, all crystal and floral centerpieces, white wine flowing and waiters weaving among the guests. What made it so magical was the fact that virtually everyone present really did wish the guest of honor well. For nearly thirty years, Dr. Andrew Solomon, my retiring mentor, had been the medical center's standard bearer and moral compass, a brilliant, dedicated physician who'd managed to make us all a little better than we really were. I couldn't count the number of times I'd knocked on his door with a question, a problem, or simply the need to talk unguardedly to someone who understood the kinds of things that troubled me. Not once did he make me feel small or stupid; I always left feeling stronger and more clear. You cannot put a price on that; you cannot say thank you enough. That's what I said in my little speech, and the words, being heartfelt, came easily, no notes required. At the end, I could tell by all the smiling faces — some of the women even tissue-dabbing their eyes with care — that I'd done him justice, and that made me glad.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Finding Katarina M."
Copyright © 2019 Elisabeth Elo.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
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