About the Author
Belinda Alexandra has been published to wide acclaim in Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Holland, Poland, Norway and Spain. She is the daughter of a Russian mother and an Australian father and has been an intrepid traveller since her youth. Find out more: http://belinda-alexandra.com/
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
White Gardenia ONE
We Russians believe that if you knock a knife from the table to the floor, a male visitor will come, and if a bird flies into the room, the death of someone close to you is at hand. Both these events occurred in 1945, around my thirteenth birthday, but there had been no omens of dropped knives or stray birds to warn me.
The General appeared on the tenth day after my father’s death. My mother and I were busy removing the black silk that had been draped over the mirrors and icons for the nine days of mourning. My memory of my mother on that day has never dimmed. Her ivory skin framed by wisps of dark hair, the pearl studs in her fleshy earlobes, and her fiery amber eyes piece together into a sharply focused photograph before me: my mother, a widow at thirty-three.
I recall her thin fingers folding the dark material with a languidness that was not usual. But then we were both shell-shocked by loss. When my father had set out on the morning of his doom, his eyes shining and his lips brushing my cheeks with parting kisses, I had no anticipation that my next view of him would be in a heavy oak coffin, his eyes closed and his waxen face remote in death. The lower part of the casket remained shut to hide the legs that had been mutilated in the twisted wreck of the car.
The night my father’s body was laid out in the parlor, white candles on either side of the coffin, my mother bolted the garage doors shut and fastened them with a chain and padlock. I watched her from my bedroom window as she paced back and forth in front of the garage, her lips moving in a silent incantation. Every so often she would stop and push her hair back over her ears as if she were listening for something, but then she would shake her head and continue her pacing. The next morning I slipped out to look at the lock and chain. I understood what she had done. She had clasped shut the garage doors the way we would have clasped onto my father if we had known that to let him drive into the lashing rain would be to let him go forever.
* * *
In the days following the accident our grief was diverted by a constant rotation of visits from our Russian and Chinese friends. They arrived and left hourly, by foot or by rickshaw, leaving their neighboring farms or city houses to fill our home with the aroma of roasted chicken and the murmur of condolences. Those from the land came laden with gifts of bread and cake or the field flowers that had survived Harbin’s early frosts, while those from the city brought ivory and silk, a polite way of giving us money, for without my father, my mother and I faced hard times ahead.
Then there was the burial. The priest, craggy and knotted like an old tree, traced the sign of the cross in the chilly air before the casket was nailed shut. The thick-shouldered Russian men jabbed their spades into the dirt, dropping frozen clods of earth into the grave. They worked hard with set jaws and downcast eyes, sweat slipping from their faces, either out of respect for my father or to win the admiration of his beautiful widow. All the while our Chinese neighbors kept their respectful distance outside the cemetery gate, sympathetic but suspicious of our custom of burying our loved ones in the ground and abandoning them to the mercy of the elements.
Afterwards the funeral party returned to our home, a wooden house my father had built with his own hands after fleeing Russia and the Revolution. We sat down to a wake of semolina cakes and tea served from a samovar. The house had originally been a simple pitched-roof bungalow with stovepipes sticking out from the eaves, but when my father married my mother he built six more rooms and a second story and filled them with lacquered cupboards, antique chairs and tapestries. He carved ornate window frames, erected a fat chimney and painted the walls the buttercup yellow of the dead Tsar’s summer palace. Men like my father made Harbin what it was: a Chinese city full of displaced Russian nobility. People who attempted to re-create the world they had lost with ice sculptures and winter balls.
When our guests had said all that could be said, I followed behind my mother to see them off at the door. While they were putting on their coats and hats I spotted my ice skates hanging on a peg in the front entrance. The left blade was loose and I remembered that my father had intended to fix it before the winter. The numbness of the past few days gave way to a pain so sharp that it hurt my ribs and made my stomach churn. I squeezed my eyes shut against it. I saw a blue sky race towards me and a thin winter sun shining on ice. The memory of the year before came back to me. The solid Songhua River; the cheerful cries of the children struggling to stay upright on their skates; the young lovers gliding in pairs; the old people shuffling around in the center, peering for fish through the sections where the ice was thin.
My father lifted me high on his shoulder, his blades scraping against the surface with the added weight. The sky became a blur of aqua and white. I was dizzy with laughter.
“Put me down, Papa,” I said, grinning into his blue eyes. “I want to show you something.”
He set me down but didn’t let me go until he was sure that I had my balance. I watched for a clearing and skated out into it, lifting one leg off the ice and spinning like a marionette.
“Harashó! Harashó!” My father clapped. He rubbed his gloved hand over his face and smiled so widely that his laugh lines seemed to come to life. My father was much older than my mother, having completed his university studies the year she was born. He had been one of the youngest colonels in the White Army and somehow, many years later, his gestures had remained a mix of youthful enthusiasm and military precision.
He held out his hands so I could skate to him, but I wanted to show off again. I pushed myself out farther and started to turn, but my blade hit a bump and my foot twisted under me. I smacked against the ice on my hip and knocked the wind out of my lungs.
My father was at my side in an instant. He picked me up and skated with me in his arms to the riverbank. He set me down on a fallen tree trunk and ran his hands over my shoulders and ribs before slipping off the damaged boot.
“No broken bones,” he said, moving my foot between his palms. The air was freezing and he rubbed my skin to warm it. I stared at the white streaks that mingled with the ginger hair on his crown and bit my lip. The tears in my eyes were not from the pain but from the humiliation of having made a fool of myself. My father’s thumb pressed against the swelling around my ankle and I flinched. Already the purple stain of a bruise was beginning to show.
“Anya, you are a white gardenia,” he smiled. “Beautiful and pure. But we need to handle you with care because you bruise so easily.”
I rested my head on his shoulder, almost laughing but crying at the same time.
A tear splashed onto my wrist and dripped onto the tiles of the entranceway. I quickly wiped my face before my mother turned around. The guests were on their way out and we gave them one more wave and “Da svidaniya” before switching off the lights. My mother took one of the funeral candles from the parlor and we made our way up the stairs by its gentle glow. The flame trembled and I felt the quickness of my mother’s breath on my skin. But I was afraid to look at her and see her suffering. I couldn’t bear her grief any better than I could my own. I kissed her goodnight at her door and scurried up the stairs to my room in the loft, falling straight into bed and covering my face with a pillow so she wouldn’t hear me sobbing. The man who had called me a white gardenia, who had lifted me on his shoulders, and twirled me until I was dizzy with laughter, would not be there anymore.
Once the official mourning period was over everyone seemed to dissolve back into their daily lives. My mother and I were abandoned, left to learn to live again.
After we had folded the cloths and stacked them in the linen press, my mother said that we should carry the flowers down to my father’s favorite cherry tree. While she was helping me with the laces of my boots we heard our dogs, Sasha and Gogle, barking. I rushed to the window, anticipating another round of mourners, but instead I saw two Japanese soldiers waiting at the gate. One was middle-aged with a sabre in his belt and the long boots of a general. His square face was dignified and carved by deep wrinkles, but amusement twitched in the corners of his mouth when he eyed the two huskies leaping at the fence. The younger soldier stood motionless beside him, a clay doll illuminated only by the flicker of his narrow eyes. The color leached completely from my mother’s face when I told her the Japanese army was waiting at the gate.
From a crack in the front door I watched my mother speak with the men, first trying slow Russian and then Chinese. The younger soldier appeared to grasp the Chinese comfortably, while the General cast his gaze about the yard and house, and only paid attention when his aide translated my mother’s answers for him. They were requesting something, bowing at the end of each sentence. This courtesy, not usually extended to the foreigners living in China, seemed to make my mother even uneasier. She was shaking her head, but giving her fear away in the flushed skin around her collar and in her trembling fingers which twisted and pulled at her sleeve cuffs.
In the past few months many Russians had received such visits. The Japanese high command and their assistants were moving into people’s homes rather than living in army quarters. It was partly to protect them from Allied air raids but also to deter local resistance movements, either from White Russians turned Soviets or Chinese sympathizers. The only person we knew who had refused them was my father’s friend, Professor Akimov, who owned an apartment in Modegow. He had disappeared one night and had never been heard from again. This, however, was the first time they had come this far from the city center.
The General muttered something to his aide, and when I saw my mother calm the dogs and open the gate I scurried backwards into the house and hid under an armchair, pressing my face against the cold tiles of the entranceway. My mother entered the house first, holding the door for the General. He wiped his boots before coming inside and placed his hat down on the table next to me. I heard my mother take him into our sitting room. He seemed to be muttering his approval in Japanese, and although my mother continued to attempt basic conversation in Russian and Chinese, he gave no indication of understanding her. I wondered why he had left his aide at the gate. My mother and the General went upstairs and I could hear the creak of the floorboards in the spare room and the sound of cupboards being opened and shut. When they returned the General appeared pleased, but my mother’s anxiety had traveled to her feet: she was changing her weight from one foot to the other and tapping her shoe. The General bowed and murmured, “Doomo arigatoo gozaimashita.” Thank you. When he picked up his hat he spotted me. His eyes were not like those of other Japanese soldiers I had seen. They were large and bulging, and when he opened them wide and smiled at me, the wrinkles on his forehead scrunched up towards his hairline and he seemed to transform into a large, friendly toad.
* * *
Every Sunday my mother, father and I had gathered at the home of our neighbors, Boris and Olga Pomerantsev, for a meal of borscht and rye bread. The elderly couple had been market farmers all their life, but they were gregarious and keen to improve their knowledge and often invited their Chinese acquaintances to join us. Until the Japanese invasion the gatherings had been lively affairs with music and readings from Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chinese poets, but as the occupation became more repressive the lunches became more subdued. All Chinese citizens were under constant surveillance, and those leaving the city had to show papers and get out of their cars or rickshaws to bow to the Japanese guards before they were allowed to move on their way. The only Chinese willing to do that for a social occasion other than a funeral or a wedding were Mr. and Mrs. Liu.
They had once been well-to-do industrialists, but their cotton factory had been taken over by the Japanese and they survived only because they had been prudent enough not to spend everything they had earned.
The Sunday after my father’s mourning my mother waited until after the meal to tell our friends about the General. She spoke in broken whispers, running her hands over the lace tablecloth Olga brought out for special occasions, and cast glances at Mr. Liu’s sister, Ying-ying. The young woman was asleep in an armchair near the kitchen door, her breathing labored and a sliver of saliva shining on her chin. It was unusual for Mr. Liu to bring his sister to these occasions; he had always preferred to leave her in the care of his eldest daughters whenever he and his wife went out. But it seemed Ying-ying’s depression was getting worse, swinging from days of listlessness to sudden outbursts of wailing and scratching the flesh of her arms until it bled. Mr. Liu had sedated her with Chinese herbs and brought her with him, no longer confident that his children could cope.
My mother addressed us with careful words but her practiced calmness only aggravated the sinking feeling in my stomach. She explained that the General would be renting the spare room in our house. She emphasized that his headquarters were in another village some distance away and that he would be spending most of his time there and so would not be such an imposition on us. She said that it had been agreed that no soldiers or other military attachés would be allowed to visit the house.
“Lina, no!” Olga cried. “Such people!”
My mother’s face blanched. “How can I refuse him? If I do, I’ll lose the house. Everything. I have to think of Anya.”
“Better no house than to live with such monsters,” said Olga. “You and Anya can come and live here.”
Boris gripped my mother’s shoulder with his farmer’s hand, pink and rough with calluses. “Olga, she will lose more than the house if she refuses.”
My mother lifted her apologetic eyes to the Lius and said, “This will not look good in the eyes of my Chinese friends.”
Mrs. Liu lowered her gaze but her husband turned his attention to his sister, who was stirring and mumbling names in her sleep. They were always the same names, whether Ying-ying was shouting them while Mrs. Liu and her daughters held her down in the doctor’s office, or whimpering them before sinking into one of her coma-like slumbers. She had come from Nanking with all the other bleeding and ruined refugees who had fled that city after the Japanese invasion. The names she called out were those of her three baby daughters, slit from throat to belly by the swords of Japanese soldiers. When the soldiers flung the girls’ bodies onto a heap along with the bodies of the other children from their apartment block, one of the soldiers clamped Ying-ying’s head between his fists so that she was forced to watch her daughters’ tiny intestines spill to the ground and be fought over by guard dogs. Her husband and the other men were dragged into the street, marked and tied to stakes, and then the Japanese generals ordered the soldiers to plunge their bayonets through them for practice.
I slipped from the table unnoticed and ran outside to play with th...
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