by Christina Ladd
“For one moment’s peace here
I would give up the grave’s peace.”
Ekaterina goes into the forest not to die, but to be reborn.
She is not a firebird. Many men have thought so, to hear her sing or—frankly—to watch her eat, and she lets them be deceived. With women she is different, letting them closer to the truth. It is partly about convenience, for the bathhouse, the dressing room, the dressmakers: they are places for light and touch while the boudoir is for shadow.
It is also about her sister.
She sees her sister once in a generation. They share a day and a night, which is fitting for their lives of half-truths, and for that one day she is entirely seen. Then they must part, one gone and one to stay. Ekaterina can only guess how it is for Alonya, but when it’s her turn out in the world she spends the decades anticipating the tidbits she will pack, the sweets and jewels and ribbons to demonstrate how time has passed for her. Sometimes it feels as though she is hoarding even her breath—each sweet intake of air for Alonya, each odious exhale for herself. And she does bottle air: phials from mountaintops or meadows that are especially fragrant, so that Alonya can uncork them and be amazed.
Sometimes she thinks it would be better to end it, to simply live as sisters together. But that is not her nature. She does not burn and fall to ash. She is not—not—a firebird.
The phials clink on her back now, a sound that would have rung in the fields. Here in the forest the chime dies almost immediately, closed in by the dense weave of the pines. The trees do not like the music, do not find it suitably reverent. Or perhaps it’s her they do not like. Certainly the needles stab her at every opportunity, and the stones conspire with the ice to catch her feet. But she has danced lately at the Winter Palace, terrain far more treacherous than this. She stares out from the path at the darkness of the place, the oldness, and is not afraid. And even when the sunlight slants to a trickle and then to nothing at all, she continues. Her path is not in the dirt but in the heart, and so the darkness is of no consequence to her.
When she is tired, she puts down her pack and flops down beside it. Even her most slavish imitators would balk at such a peasant display, but they are no longer her concern. They are fringe on a shawl, pretty little embellishments for Alonya’s benefit.
Although, the shawl she has brought is less fringed than fraying. It is cut from an old tapestry, one of the ancient weavings they used to use to warm castles as well as decorate them. Ekaterina can remember one like it from long ago; maybe it was even the one she took a knife to. Perhaps Alonya will remember it too.
There is also a dress, a waistcoat, breeches, and silk trappings in motley colors. Always the stories of these things are more important than the collection, and Alonya can wear anything with élan. Especially jewels, which Ekaterina has brought in spades. And spades too: gold-leaf playing cards, painted by a monk who made icons for all the great basilicas until he lost his faith—well, until it was taken from him. That’s a good story; Alonya will like that.
There are also fox pelts, one white and one red, with their eyes sewn shut. She has brought cosmetics that get their sparkle from pulverized rubies, and a hairpin dipped in poison, and a relic of St. Anna the Mother Without Children. There is a mirror that caught the last reflection of Marie Antoinette, and a tin lamp that supposedly contains a djinn. Will they be able to make him appear, their long-lost not-quite brother? She hopes not. From dawn to dawn she will see her sister. She does not want to share.
She rests until her breath is even, but does not eat or drink. This is not Lent. She cannot sneak down to the fruit trees or the larder when backs are turned, and the only cellar is the single bottle of wine at the bottom of her pack. Even if she wanted to drink it, even if the forest did not have ten thousand unblinking eyes, she would not. A generation is not enough to forget herself or the Laws that are her bones. Bones break, but they do not bend.
When she goes to pick up the pack again, it’s heavier than before. Part of this is the illusion cast by her weariness, but part of it is simply true. The forest and her sister’s nearness are doing their work. She wishes she could have had a carriage, or at least a little sledge, but such things are as impossible as food and drink, regardless of her wishing.
The innkeeper at the edge of the forest—a man who did not survive the ebb and flow of travelers by being dim—had insisted on a carriage no less than seven times, but then subsided. She had been dressed with self-conscious poverty, and her pack was far too large for a woman pretending to have nothing. (That was the half-truth, of course: she herself indeed had nothing. It was all for Alonya.) He did not dare let her go off on her own, but what he finally understood, with a fearful light entering his eyes, was that he also did not dare defy her. A rock and a hard place. Well, let him fret.He was well compensated for whatever trouble comes in her wake, even if it’s the secret police. More likely it will be a gaggle of discarded lovers, searching for a sign. Such fools are easily placated.
She travels onward, nether hurrying nor dawdling. The nature of the forest is such that, even if she were to sprint headlong for a hundred versts, she would not arrive one second earlier than daybreak. It is another Law.
A doctor told her there were more than two hundred bones in the body. There are probably as many Laws, but like bones, she does not know them until she feels them; like bones, they will still be there when she is gone. But she does not plan on being gone. Not now. Maybe not ever.
She is walking toward the fire.
As she walks she tries to reckon the cost of her pack. She has lost the trick of it though, having lived on the indulgence of adoration and credit for much of this generation. How much does hundred-year-old wine cost? And boiled sweets—are they kopeks or rubles? She cannot eat but she has prepared her sister’s feast, and at—a hundred rubles? A thousand? She estimates wildly and inconsistently so that she can give either a smug or modest accounting, whichever will sound better. And, as always, there are five hundred rubles. Any less would be a bother; any more would be an insult. Such cuckoo children as they know how to get by.
When dawn—which is in her blood as Law is in her bones—breaks open, the forest sighs and parts its green curtains at last. The orchestral swell of birdsong and wind rise up, and Ekaterina forgets the weight and the ache, and she runs. She sprints. She flies, and alights on the edge of a clearing so perfectly round that it might be the bed of the sun when it’s not in the sky.
In the center of the circle is another round, like a bull’s-eye, but this is one of bracken and ash. It glimmers red and white: red from the coals still spotted with flame, white from the girl blinking and rubbing her eyes, naked as the moon.
They meet halfway, embracing without tears or smiles. Faces cannot hold feelings this large; it is bodies that are needed, sooty and sweaty and finally whole.
Alonya pulls a few feathers out of her hair and places them into Ekaterina’s. Ekaterina undoes her lace collar and puts it round Alonya’s neck. They do not look away from each other’s faces. Alonya touches the skin below Ekaterina’s eyes, lately grown thin and dark, and touches the lines at her lids. Crow’s-feet, they both think, and smile. Crows, hah!
Ekaterina traces the curve of Alonya’s cheek, plump as a child’s and downy-smooth. They are twins-not-twins, separated by time in more ways than one, but impossible to tear apart.
When finished examining each other for the moment—Alonya has acquired bracelets and stockings and ribbons, Ekaterina smudges and the warmth of a hand over her heart that does not fade—they hold hands and go to the tree.
The tree is a sickly little thing that would not have looked out of place clinging to a wind-battered clifftop. It is twisted and blackened, but the few leaves it has managed are so intensely green they put the rest of the forest to shame. Alonya clambers on a branch and lifts Ekaterina up after her. This is their home, their birthplace. Incongruous as they are, this is still the place they can be perfect. Where they can forget their loneliness and be two, even if they are the only two that ever were.
Alonya and Ekaterina are the rarest of the rare, scarcer than unicorns, more extraordinary than God’s own revelation. Two cuckoos hidden in the same nest, egg-twins twice as hungry who broke their shell twice as soon. They must also have had twice the fortune, since their first act took all: blind eyes set upon an unhatched egg and raw, wet limbs propelled them bit by bit toward it. It was warm as the sun and twice as golden, but their greed was not so base. They did not want gold. They pressed and pressed with single purpose until the other egg tottered. Then wobbled. Then swayed with nauseating swoops. And then—
It is a terrible thing to destroy a Phoenix’s egg. They mate but once in a lifetime, and have but one offspring. And regenerative though they are, a thing must first be born to be re-born.
The cuckoo children did not bother to look down on their bitter work, on the luminescent embryo now impaled on several ceramic shards of that cooling shell, or to mourn their brief nestmate. Instead they shrilled and cried so prettily that at last the mother Phoenix returned. A virtuous bird but not a shrewd one, the Phoenix dripped the honey of the dawn into the cuckoos’ mouths. Later it brought them the grubs of the Egyptian scarab, the beetle that can move the sun. And last of all, it brought them two amber beads of sunset, rich and red, in which were trapped two flecks of Time itself. The girls crammed them into each other’s mouths and swallowed them in unison.
Perhaps the Phoenix knew it had two impostors instead of one real child. Perhaps it also had fallen into resignation, deciding that any child was better than no child. Or perhaps it really could not tell, and thought itself doubly blessed. This did not matter to the girls, who called themselves by names they liked and made paper skirts from birchbark.
They decorated their hair with the still-golden shards of the egg they had broken. One of the halves was mostly intact: they used it as a cup to drink from the nearby spring. As for the body…
The Phoenix is the empress of birds, and nothing with wings would touch it, even in death. And so when they tumbled down with wings and legs and wails, they found their work still fresh, still mournful. One pecked at it; the other prodded. And with the instinct that had first compelled them to murder, they then took up the corpse between them and built a little pyre.
That fire still burns. It is their bed and larder, the only way they can release the flame within to burn up the years without. Their nameless sib dies for them again and again; again and again they steal its life away.
If souls are breath then theirs are whispers, one a secret and one a lie. Twins that they are, they have swapped their identities so often that they no longer know which is which, and there is no mother to sort them out again. These half girls have half mothers, one who laid and one who labored, and neither really knew them. They are known only to themselves and each other—two ways of saying the same thing.
Their past recedes; the present resurfaces. Alonya drops down and runs to the forgotten pack. She waits for permission, barely, before ripping it open and demanding the stories that go with the gifts.
“This is the soap they use to wash rusalka, to take away their scales,” says Ekaterina, who certainly had heard the story somewhere, and maybe even in the shop where she’d had someone else buy it. “When they’re clean, their hair is so long and beautiful that men pay by the inch rather than the hour. Rusalka make the best whores.”
Alonya nods as if this is well known, but neither of them has ever seen a rusalka, or any myth beyond their own.
“These are buttons from the Three Dimitris,” says Ekaterina, drawing out seven brass buttons that are certainly of the right period, but which could have come from any coat. One has a bit of a stain, but when Alonya licks it she declares that it’s dirt and not blood. Then she juggles them, and Ekaterina claps her hands. Only Alonya remembers the time of the False Dimitris, and though it was not a good time for the land it was a time when anyone could claim anything, and Alonya certainly got along.
“These are the eunuch’s missing pieces,” she says as Alonya draws out a silk bag containing two leathery pieces that might indeed be testicles, and a number of baby teeth. “They can’t go to the afterlife without all their parts.”
“Maybe he’ll haunt me,” Alonya says, eyes alight at the prospect.
Ekaterina certainly slept soundly before and after acquiring the morbid purse, but maybe Alonya will have better luck.
All through the day they pull things from the pack, squealing and sighing over trinkets and treasures. They laugh over the tales of others as their shadows grow short, they laze in delight as noon crowns their glade, and when shadows creep out again, they turn to Ekaterina’s own tales.
“This is the candle I used to signal to the orphans of Rostov-on-Don that I had deliveries to make. They earned their own weight in bread and milk, and they took my letters and gifts all over town. I ruined four marriages and began fourteen affairs, none my own, and caused one priest to be defrocked. I also revitalized the painting of miniatures and put competent men in charge of the railway.” The candle, a burnt stub of tallow, earns a place on top of both an icon of the Archangel Gavril and a choker made of alternating diamonds and Murano glass.
“This is the plate off which I ate the greatest cake of my life. There were so many berries they probably denuded a forest. I refused to get up for dancing and did not open my mouth to gossip—only to cake. I ate the whole thing.”
Alonya gives the plate an even higher place of reverence, and swears to find the chef before she goes digging in the pack again.
Ekaterina can scarcely hold her tongue; her whole body feels like it’s grinning. Alonya reaches into the nest of fur and silk and uncovers—
It is not the most exquisite egg in existence, but for the work of human hands, it comes very close. It is enameled in a deep, dark red at either pole, the kind of red that cherries might bleed. It diffuses imperceptibly at first, but by the time the eye reaches the egg’s equator, the color is the fresh, sweet pink of cherry blossoms. The gradient is interrupted at three points, bands of gold embedded with seed pearls and rubies in a neat row. How many apprentices went blind, she wondered when she saw it, trying to find pearls that matched so exactly in color and shape?
“I seduced not the artist but the artist’s wife to inspire this beauty, and then I told her it would win my fidelity if she gave it to me.”
Alonya matches her grin, for she feels the truth of that lie and the lie in that truth: Ekaterina will certainly not stray. But that does not mean the poor matron will ever see her again.
They turn back to the precious egg, full on smugness. There is a lock, too, a delicate thing that invites thievery. Alonya wastes no time undoing it with her clever little fingers, the nails still a little like talons. The diamond pin comes out and hangs from a chain no thicker than a hair, and the seal releases.
Inside, cosseted in red velvet, is a bird cut from a single fire opal. It stands on an obsidian base dotted with smoky quartz and diamond. At one edge is a cross, and Ekaterina, unable to contain herself, reaches out and twists it. A few notes trickle into the air. It is possible that no such sound has ever penetrated to this glade.
Alonya waits until the last note has stopped ringing before she too twists the cross, and the melody takes up where it left off. The composition is Borodin’s, but the song is much older. He must have stolen it. So there is a thief in this nest as well.
Ekaterina takes up the tune with a voice now in the midst of change, and Alonya joins in. If the Firebird’s song guides listeners into peaceful sleep, their song is the laudanum fugue and the bacchic stupor. They begin to dance, circling first each other and then the fire pit, which is low and red. Their steps and song intensify: tendrils of fire grasp at twigs and pages from the dirty book Alonya shredded in her glee. Sepia comes, and roan and ochre, and the fire catches. There are branches in it now, birch and fir and yew, though neither twin has ever stooped to burden herself with carrying. The smoke is very heady.
Alonya leaps, and her nails are talons. Ekaterina shrieks, and the flames answer. Sparks catch on their skin and hair. The twins are baleful skies that have caught the stars and will never ever let them go. They swoop and dive and twirl, not girls, not women, not cuckoos, not phoenixes, not anything but adherents to the fire.
There are jewels in the grass. A glove finer than a swipe of paint floats in the spring. The fire understands these things as offerings, not for consumption but for the way they reflect its light. And it is well pleased.
But even if the fire were angry, or extinguished itself entirely, the sisters would still dance. They would dance through the night if it were the last night of the earth, and all tomorrows hell or oblivion.
When her sister is gone, Ekaterina will build up the fire. She will sing, and play on her flute. When the flames are hottest, she will dance with bells on her arms and her feet. When the fire burns down, she will sleep in the coals and dream. Sometimes her dreams will be memories of all the generations she has spent in the world. Sometimes her dreams will be her sister’s dreams, and she will know all is well. And sometimes she will dream the fire’s dreams, visions of devouring every last crumb and thread, and she will know that her vitality is returning, and that the time is coming when she will go out to scorch the world anew.
Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian. She studied Egyptian hieroglyphics at Harvard and T. S. Eliot at Oxford, but flirts with all sorts of other languages and literature in her spare time. She lives in Massachusetts.