‘On the Tail of the Firebird’ by Irina Frolova

Australia, 2005

Vika opened the bedroom window. The street of her small coastal town was empty. All she could hear was the breeze ruffling the treetops and the warble of magpies. Perhaps her neighbours, mainly retirees, were having an afternoon nap. On a different day Vika would welcome this siesta in the suburban carnival of lawn-mowing, whipper-snipping and leaf-blowing. But today the quiet made her hands tremble and her breath stall in her throat.

She unscrewed the fly screen and carefully put it down next to the wall. Then she picked up the first bag from her bed, lifted it over the windowsill and put it on the front lawn. When the second bag was out, she grabbed the cat carrier with Vegemite sitting patiently inside.

‘Thank you for being such a good girl’ Vika whispered to the cat.

A few minutes later the bags were in the boot, the cat carrier and the kids in the back seats. She had told everyone it was just a trip to the park.

Vika took one last look at the old weatherboard house with the white picket fence and the rose garden. Oh, if these walls could talk. Or write. What stories they would tell: of motherhood, of loneliness, of denial, of lies, of anguish. These walls, covered with small handprints of her three children, stood around her: on the nights she fought sleep with a crying baby in her arms, or fought off panic attacks, the sneaky cowards, just before dawn. These walls stood between them: her in one room, him – in another. Can they stand with her one more time, keep one more secret?

Her eyes paused on the middle window. Was there a shadow behind the lace curtain? Vika was not sure if she believed in ghosts. However, she had come to believe that, perhaps, the house had a ghost – the suburban dream. Her dream. Her happily-ever-after. Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Maybe so, but for now she had bigger things to worry about.

She put the key in the ignition. Every nerve in her body was buzzing. She remembered the first time she was on a plane. Her skin tingled, as the plane sped up the runway, like a match flashing on the side of the matchbox. The moment the plane was airborne, a steady flame radiated through her. Now, that she was driving away from the family home, it was back.

While the kids played at the park, she made three phone calls. The first one was to the women’s services. She told them that she was out, and a motel room was arranged for the night. Then she called her friend, who offered to take in Vegemite for as long as needed. She paused before making the third call.

There was no answer, so she left a voice mail: ‘We are safe. We are not coming back.’

At the motel, Ash and Violet took one of the double beds, while Vika and Ruby shared the other. She told the kids they were having a little holiday, an adventure. The puzzled looks quickly gave way to jumping on the beds and excited squealing. When everyone was finally in their pyjamas, they all squeezed into one bed for story time.

Vika had packed only one book – a compilation of Russian fairy-tales that her mother had sent from home.

‘Ok, which one will it be tonight?’ she looked at the children.

‘Vasilisa The Wise! Baba Yaga! Ivan Tsarevich!’ they yelled over each other in anticipation.

‘You have to agree on one.’

‘You chose last time.’

‘No, you did!’

‘I never get to choose…’

‘How about we let the fairy-tale choose us?’ said Vika mysteriously.

The kids’ mouths fell open: ‘How?’

‘We close our eyes and open the book. We see which fairy-tale it is, and read it’

Two brown heads and one blond head nodded rapidly.

Vika closed her eyes, took a dramatic deep breath and opened the story book. On the left side there was an illustration: a young man dressed in black grasping a feather of an exotic bird. The bird looked like a peacock, with a magnificent long tail and large wings, the colour of fire. In the background, against the night sky stood a tree with golden fruit.

‘Wow…’ the children whispered in unison.

Vika pointed to the title: ‘Oh look: it’s “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf!” And… It also has Princess Vasilisa.’

‘AND the Firebird too!’ squealed Ruby in delight.

Once the children were asleep, Vika looked at her phone: thirty new messages and five missed calls. An icy wave rolled over her. She switched off the phone. One by one, she kissed the three silky heads. Ruby was still hugging the book of fairy-tales to her chest. Vika carefully pulled it out of Ruby’s hands and flicked through the pages.

Curled up on the edge of the bed, she closed her eyes. She could see her own mother’s face before her.

The soft voice read to her: ‘and then Vasilisa the Wise said: ‘Go to sleep. Don’t worry yourself. A morning is wiser than a night.’

Russia, 1983

1.

‘I see a bench

And on the bench a crone

Spinning her yarn till midnight,

Telling my favourite tales,

Singing me lullabies.

There stands, surrounded by gardens,

A palace made of glass,

There firebirds sing at night

And peck at golden fruits,

Two streams of water: that of life

And that of death bubble along –

And you believe and disbelieve your eyes.’

Anna Petrovna finished reading aloud from “Winter Way” by Yakov Polonsky and took a sweeping glance of the classroom.

Twenty preschoolers sat on the bench along the room perimeter, fidgeting. Some swung their legs back and forth, while others turned their heads from side to side to look at their friends.

‘Girls and boys, we are going to work on a very special play this year’ she announced.

Indeed, it was special to Anna Petrovna. She had written it herself. She had managed to include all the children’s favourite characters: the wolf, the evil wizard Koschei the Deathless, Prince Ivan, and, naturally, the Snow Princess. And even one of her own fairy-tale favourites – the Firebird. 

A barber by trade, Anna Petrovna had come to Kindergarten N468 in her middle years. Divorced and with no children of her own, she took to caring for a flock of six-year-olds like a stern mother-hen, unflinching at the squabbling chaos around her.

On her first day of work she had found the headmistress, Maria Ivanovna, feeding a street dog. Anna Petrovna frowned at the sight of the dirty stray with grey clumps of fur, ridden with fleas, no doubt, and devil knows what else.

Soon she had learnt that Maria Ivanovna had a soft spot for all those who had strayed off the path, in one way or another. Over the years she had watched the headmistress loan money to some of her staff and help others stay off the bottle. Anna Petrovna shook her head, but every now and then she sat the headmistress down for a cup of black tea and a free haircut.

Among Anna Petrovna’s pupils was Maria Ivanovna’s granddaughter, Viktoria Sokol. A quiet girl with auburn hair – wispy and hard to tame, despite its deceptive softness. Anna Petrovna was used to working with men’s hair. She preferred thicker hair in general, the kind Maria Ivanovna or most girls in her class had. The kind of hair that took its place easily in a braid or a pony-tail. Vika’s strands slipped out of her fingers, and from underneath the ribbons and hair bands. Still, Anna Petrovna couldn’t help but admire their colour – the way it came alive in the light, with specks of fire throughout.

It was time to allocate the main parts in the play. Anna Petrovna looked the children up and down.

‘Olya’, she called out to the blond blue-eyed girl sitting next to Vika, ‘you are the Snow Princess.’

Next, she grabbed the tallest boy: ‘Sasha, you are the Prince.’

Looking at Vika, she thundered: ‘Firebird!’

2.

Just like that it was over.

Vika’s eyes welled up, as she walked away from the classroom. It’s her last year, and she ends up with the bird part… She imagined her costume. Probably orange feathers. And a giant beak too.

Vika’s mother, Elena, consoled her at home: ‘Vika, you don’t understand… Firebird is a lot more interesting!’

Maria Ivanovna joined her: ‘You’ve got the best part!’

Vika looked at her grandmother. ‘But Babushka…’ she choked on the burning lump in her throat.

Six-year-old Vika did not want ‘interesting’. She wanted to wear the white dress with blue embroidery and silver trim around the edges. Every year one lucky girl got to dress up as the Snow Princess for a play. She heard that back in the day her own mother had been chosen more than once. Vika didn’t get Elena’s honey hair and big aquamarine eyes. Or her smile that seemed to melt even the coldest of faces. Her own hair was reddish-brown, her eyes – hazel, her skin – olive. She did not look like anyone in the house. Vika took after her father. Tatar genes, Babushka had explained.

Having found no comfort at home, Vika knocked on the door of her elderly neighbour, Baba Yana.

‘Baba Yana?’ Vika called.

The neighbour, a retired pensioner in her seventies, sometimes babysat Vika after pre-school. She had been in the building longer than most. Like the lobby fire-exit, dark and permanently closed off, she was a mystery. The only visitors she allowed were the pigeons that picked at the stale breadcrumbs on her windowsill. Whenever Vika brought Baba Yana a plate of cookies, she was met with a toothless grin and a wink, before the door promptly closed in front of her.

‘May I come in, please?’

There was a fumbling sound, as if Baba Yana was moving furniture. The door finally creaked open, and Baba Yana’s face peeked through. She inspected Vika’s wet cheeks and red eyes, grunted, and moved out of the way.

The old woman sat Vika down onto a wooden chair by the big table, covered with yellowed newspaper and crowded with cast-iron pots and pans. Vika noticed a bottle of vodka in the centre. The room smelt of sausages, which she knew to be Baba Yana’s favourite dinner. Must be pension day, thought Vika.

When she informed Baba Yana of the tragic miscasting in her pre-school play, Baba Yana cackled: ‘The Firebird? Only fools chase her!’

Vika raised her eyebrows.

Baba Yana sat in the chair opposite her, hands clasped on her knees.

‘There are many stories of the Firebird,’ she began, ‘Prince Ivan and the Gray Wolf, The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa…’

Her eyes half-closed, she slowly rocked back and forth. From time to time, she paused to smack her lips, as if she was chewing the words over in her mouth.

As Vika listened, she stopped moving around in her hard chair. The sky outside the bare window went from lilac to raven-black. The lamppost sizzled in a dim yellow aura on the corner of the street.

‘You see, little bird, what is not given to one freely will burn him’, concluded Baba Yana.

Vika heard a knock and her mother’s voice on the other side of the door. She shook off a small shiver, wondering how long she’d been sitting in her neighbour’s room. It was probably dinner time.

‘You show them!’ Baba Yana winked at Vika and pushed her out the door.

3.

Maria Ivanovna had had a long day. And an even longer month. There was still no reprieve in sight.

First, she had to bow to the bureaucrats from Department of Education. Every few years they inspected the pre-school to see if the regulations were being followed. Maria Ivanovna had to smile and show them around, as if she had no actual work to do. As if anything depended on this visit. She knew they would get no more government funding than usual. But as long as the all-important boxes were ticked…

When the inspection was finally behind her, it was time to put together the end-of-year concert for parents and families. At least, this was shaping up to be a real treat. Anna Petrovna had outdone herself this time. What is more, Vika would play one of the main parts. At the thought of her granddaughter, Maria Ivanovna’s face softened.

As soon as she got home from work, she took off her suit: a jacket and an ankle-length skirt, the type of business attire she considered appropriate for a woman of ‘a certain age’. She slipped on an old cotton dress. It reminded her of life before Moscow. Never forget yourself, her mother used to say.

She had come to work at her pre-school as a nurse of twenty-five: bright eyes, heavy country-girl plait between her bony shoulder blades. Over two decades she had worked her way up to the headmistress position.

Washing her hands, Maria Ivanovna caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror and sighed. A woman in her late forties with greying hair and tired blue eyes was looking back at her. Where have the years gone? she murmured. Yes, she was neck-deep in the certain-age waters.

It was getting close to dinner, and somebody had to cook it. Elena was on the phone and much too quiet for Maria Ivanovna’s comfort. What does she have to tell these friends that she can’t tell her mother? Maria Ivanovna’s husband was still at work.

She sat down near the kitchen sink to peel potatoes. Her hand glided over each potato with precision. She had once wanted to be a surgeon, but life had decided differently. She carefully peeled only the thinnest top layer so as not to waste any edible part of the vegetable. If you asked her, it was all edible anyway. Wasting food made her anxious. It had been over three decades since the war, but the memories of famine hadn’t left her.

The thoughts of the war took her back to the village. The old cottage. The apple tree garden. Her father’s smile. She had held onto it through the toughest times: when they took him away to the labour camp, when they taunted her at school for being the daughter of ‘the enemy of the people’.

The sound of the front door interrupted Maria Ivanovna’s contemplation. It was Elena and Vika. Suddenly she felt a sharp pinch deep in her chest. Vika’s concert… All the other kids will have mothers and fathers there, watching. She swallowed the bitterness at the thought of Vika waiting for her good-for-nothing father. Vika never asked for him. Only when the other children got picked up by their dads, there it was. Always the same look: wonder, hope, disappointment.

Russia, 1989

1.

Vika sat under a birch tree, its crown translucent yellow. On her left, was a small open Green Theatre with a stage and several rows of benches. To her right, spread the olive-green pond, framed like a jewel by the gold of the autumn leaves. The lindens, birches, oaks, and cedars that grew throughout the park were once part of a forest beside a small village of Ostankino. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was turned into a European-style estate by the Count Sheremetyev.

Vika loved to imagine what it was like to walk through these alleys two centuries earlier, to sit in the white rotunda, perhaps with a book or an easel. She wondered what it was like before that too, in the thick wilderness of the forest. On her lap, lay open the anthology of classical Russian poems about nature.

Wonderful Autumn! Vigorous, spicy

air braces the tired senses;

newborn ice, like melting sugar,

lies on the gelid river.

She read to the end of Nekrasov’s poem, closed her eyes and took in the crisp October air. A gust of wind brought in the faint scent of doughnuts from the other side of the park.

It was the weekend, and they were open. Vika sprang to her feet. The tiny doughnut shop, that looked like a gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel, was dangerously unpredictable. There was no guarantee to obtain the hearty doughnuts that came sprinkled with icing sugar and stacked in a brown paper cone. Vika remembered the times when she had lined up to the shop only to walk away with nothing, but a smell of fresh doughnuts haunting her on the way home, her mouth still watering.

This time she was in luck. She hugged the paper cone, and its heat spread through her cold fingers. Vika crossed the tram tracks and headed towards the Sheremetyev Estate-Museum, perpetually closed for renovations. She walked past the pink palace with white columns behind the iron-wrought fence, towards the old Trinity church. The Byzantine cathedral with its golden domes was also being constantly renovated. It was still open for business though, in the name of God.

The walk home took half an hour. She arrived in a state of content tiredness, her heart light and her stomach full of doughnuts. As she reached the eighth floor of her apartment building, she licked the icing sugar off her lips, wiped her hands on a clean handkerchief in her pocket and rang the doorbell.

When the door opened, Vika took a step back. A middle-aged man with thin brown hair, a shiny olive face and slippery eyes stood in the corridor. He was wearing the sweater and trousers that looked like they had been waiting in the closet for their day.

‘Surprise!’ he beamed. ‘Viktoria, it’s me, your papa!’ he continued, as if she stood there motionless because she didn’t know him. She knew who he was. What she couldn’t figure out was why the hell he was here.