"Mikhail!" the woman called, across time and distance. "Mikhail, where are youi" In another moment Elana Gallatinov saw the kite, and then her green-eyed gaze found her son, standing out at the far edge of the field almost to the deep woods. On this day, the twenty-first of May in the year 1918, the breeze blew from the east, and brought with it a faint smell of gunpowder.
"Come home!" she told the little boy, and watched as he waved and began to reel the kite's line in. The kite dipped like a white fish. Behind the tall, black-haired woman whose skin was the shade of porcelain stood the Gallatinov manor, a two-storied house of brown Russian stones with a red, sharply angled roof and chimneys. Large sunflowers grew around the house, and there was a gravel driveway that went from the house through the iron gates and connected with the dirt road to the nearest village, Moroc, six miles to the south. The closest town of any size was Minsk, over fifty miles north on bad roads.
Russia was a huge country, and the house of General Fyodor Gallatinov was a mote of dust on the head of a pin. But the fourteen acres of meadow and woods was the Gallatinov world, and had been so since Czar Nicholas II had abdicated his throne on March 2, 1917. and with the Czar's final words in his signed statement of abdication-"May the Lord God help Russia!"-the motherland had turned into a killer of her children.
But the young Mikhail knew nothing of politics, of Red Russians fighting White Russians and cold-minded men named Lenin and Trotsky. He knew nothing, mercifully, of whole villages razed to the ground by rival factions less than a hundred miles from where he stood reeling in a silken kite; he knew nothing of famine, and women and children twitching as they were hanged from trees, and pistol barrels splattered with brains. He knew his father was a hero in a war, that his mother was beautiful, that his sister sometimes pinched his cheeks and called him a ragamuffin, and that today was the day of a long-anticipated picnic. He got the kite down, wrestling with the wind, and then he clasped it gently in his arms and ran across the field toward his mother.
Elana, though, knew the things that her son did not. She was thirty-seven years old, wearing a long white dress of springtime linen, and gray had begun to creep back from her forehead and at her temples. Lines had etched deeply around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth; not age lines, but the lines of constant inner turmoil. Fyodor had been away at war too long, and gravely wounded at a marshy slaughter hole called Kowel. Gone were the operas and brightly lit festivals of St. Petersburg; gone were the noisy street markets of Moscow; gone were the banquets and royal garden parties of Czar Nicholas and Czarina alexandra, and left in their shadows were the skeletons of the future.
"I flew it, Mother!" Mikhail shouted when he got closer. "Did you see how highi"
"Oh, that was your kitei" she asked, with feigned surprise. "I thought it was a cloud tied to a string!"
He saw she was teasing him. "It was my kite!" he insisted, and she took his hand and said, "You'd better come down to earth now, my little cloud. We have a picnic to go on." She squeezed his hand-he was as excited as a candle flame-and led him toward the house. In the driveway the hired man Dimitri had brought the carriage and two horses from the barn, and twelve-year-old alizia was carrying one of the wicker baskets for their picnic from the front door. The maid and Elana's sewing companion Sophie brought the other basket out, and helped alizia pack them into the back of the carriage.
and then Fyodor emerged from the house, carrying a brown blanket rolled up under one arm and the other hand steadying himself on his eagle-crested cane. His right leg, mauled by machine-gun bullets, was stiff and noticeably thinner than the left leg; but he had learned to move with grace, and as he brought the blanket to the rear of the carriage he lifted his gray-bearded face to the sun.
Elana, after all these years, could still feel her heartbeat quicken as she looked at him. He was tall and lean, with the figure of a swordsman, and though he was forty-six years old and his body bore the scars of rapier and bullet wounds, he yet had a youthful quality, a curiosity and power of life that sometimes made her feel ancient. His face, with its long slender nose, square jaw, and deep-set brown eyes, used to be hard and bitter, the face of a man who has crashed into the ceiling of his limitations. Now, though, it had softened with the reality of his situation: he was retired from the service of the motherland, and would live out the rest of his years here, on this plot of land far from the center of tumult. His forced retirement, after the abdication of the czar, had not been an easy pill to swallow, but now that it was dissolved he felt numb, like an amputated relic.
"What a beautiful day," he said, and watched the wind blowing through the trees. He wore his brown, carefully ironed uniform with its chestful of medals and ribbons, and on his head was his black-visored cap, still bearing the seal of Czar Nicholas II.
"I flew the kite!" Mikhail said eagerly to his father. "I it got up almost to the sky!"
"Good for you," Gallatinov answered, and reached out to alizia. "My golden angel. Help me inside, will youi"
Elana watched as alizia helped her father into the carriage while Mikhail stood with his kite in his arms. She touched her son's shoulder. "Come on, Mikhail. Let's make sure everything's packed."
They put the kite into the back of the carriage, too, and Dimitri closed and latched the trunk's lid. Then Elana and Mikhail sat across from Fyodor and alizia in the red velvet interior, and they waved goodbye to Sophie as Dimitri popped the reins and the two chestnut horses began their journey.
Mikhail looked out the oval window as alizia drew a picture and their mother and father talked about things that he barely remembered: the spring festival in St. Petersburg, the estate where they'd lived when he was born, people whose names were familiar only because he'd heard them before. He watched the gently rolling land give way to forests of towering oaks and evergreens, listened to the creak of the wheels and the crisp jingling of the horses' traces. The sweet scent of wildflowers drifted into the carriage as they passed a blossoming meadow, and alizia perked up from her drawing when Mikhail sighted a herd of deer on the edge of the woods. He'd been cooped up in the house from the middle of October until the end of april, patiently doing the schoolwork lessons that Magda, his and alizia's tutor, taught him. Now, Mikhail's senses rioted under the heady onslaught of springtime. Winter's pewter had been banished from the land, for a time at least, and Mikhail's world wore fine green robes.
Their May picnic was an annual excursion, a ritual that connected them to their lives in St. Petersburg. This year Dimitri had found a good place for them, on the shore of a lake about an hour's leisurely drive from the Gallatinov house.
The lake was blue and wind-rippled, and as Dimitri pulled the carriage into a meadow Mikhail heard the cawing of crows atop a huge, gnarled oak. Forest circled the lake, the emerald wilderness unbroken by village or habitation for a hundred miles to the north, south and west. Dimitri stopped the carriage and chocked the wheels, then let the horses drink lake water as the Gallatinovs unloaded their picnic baskets and spread the blanket down overlooking the blue pool.
They ate their meal of baked ham, fried potatoes, dark wheat bread, and ginger cake with sugar frosting. One of the horses nickered and jumped around nervously for a moment, but Dimitri got the mare settled down and Fyodor sat facing the woods. "She smells something wild," he told Elana as he poured them both a glass of red wine. "Children!" he warned. "Don't stray too far from us!"
"Yes, Father," alizia said, but she was already taking off her shoes and lifting up the hem of her pink dress to go wading.
Mikhail went down to the lake with her and hunted for pretty stones while she walked in the shallows. Dimitri stayed nearby, sitting on a fallen tree and watching the clouds glide past, a rifle at his side.
The enchanted afternoon moved on. His pockets full of stones, Mikhail reclined in the sunny meadow and watched his father and mother sit together on the picnic blanket and talk. alizia lay beside her father, sleeping, and every so often his hand would move out to touch her arm or shoulder. Mikhail realized, quite suddenly, that his father's hand had never touched him. He didn't know why, nor did he understand why his father's eyes took on a January chill when they met his own. Sometimes he felt like a small thing that lived beneath a rock, and other times he didn't care, but there was no time when there wasn't a hurting deep in his heart.
after a while, his mother laid her head on his father's shoulder, and they slept in the sun. Mikhail watched a raven circling overhead, the light glinting blue black off its wings, and then he stood up and walked to the carriage to get his kite. He ran back and forth, letting the string unwind from his fingers, and a breeze caught the silk, expanded it, and the kite sailed smoothly up into the air.
He started to shout to his parents, but they were both asleep. alizia was sleeping as well, her back pressed against their father's side. Dimitri sat on his fallen tree, deep in thought, the rifle resting across his knees.
The kite floated higher. The string continued to unreel. Mikhail shifted his fingers to get a better grip. The breeze was fierce beyond the treetops. It grasped the kite, hurled it right and left and made the string thrum like a mandolin. Still the kite ascended-too high, he decided momentarily. He started to reel it back. and then the wind hit the kite from a strange angle, lifted it and turned it at the same time, and the string tightened, strained, and snapped about six feet below the balsawood crossbar.
Oh no! he almost cried out. The kite had been a present from his mother on his eighth birthday, the seventh of March. and now it was flying away at the mercy of the wind, going over the treetops toward the deep woods. Oh no! He looked at Dimitri and started to shout for help. But Dimitri had his hands pressed to his face, as if in some private agony. The rest of his family slumbered on, and Mikhail thought of how his father hated to be awakened from a nap. In another moment the kite would be over the forest, and the decision had to be made now whether to stand here and watch it go or follow and hope it would fall when the breeze slackened.
Children! he remembered his father saying. Don't stray too far from us!
But this was his kite, and if it were lost, his mother's heart would be broken. He glanced again at Dimitri; the man hadn't moved. Precious seconds were ticking past.
Mikhail decided. He ran across the meadow, and into the woods.
Looking up, he could see the kite through the green leaves and tangle of branches. as he followed its erratic progress, he dug a handful of smooth stones from his pocket and dropped them at his feet to mark a trail back. The kite went on, and so did the boy.
Less than two minutes after Mikhail had left the meadow, three men on horseback came down to the lake from the main road. They all wore dark, patched peasant clothing. One of them carried a rifle slung around his shoulder, and the other two were armed with pistols in cartridge belts. They continued to where the Gallatinov family slept in the sun, and as one of the horses snorted and whinnied Dimitri looked around and stood up, pinpricks of sweat sparkling on his face.