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Chapter Twelve - Das Vadanya

Chapter Twelve


Ivan sits in the library long after Mishka has left. The book on the Volkov family exploits lies tauntingly on the table next to him. He supposes that in the future, there will be another book written about modern wars, about Manchuria, spoken about in the same reverent tone as the battles in this one, though unlike hie predecessors, Ivan will not be mentioned.

This is not where he wanted his mind to go today. He stands, turning firmly towards the small cart in the corner, and swipes the decanter and ornate glass which had been sitting ready for him. Ultimately, he would have just preferred a bottle, but this will have to do.

There are better solutions, Ivan knows this, but this is by far the easiest. Vodka is the magic medicine that makes the screaming stop. Usually. He sits down heavily, and pours himself a glass. Ivan doesn’t actually like the taste of vodka, as much as it tastes at all. It’s more like a sensation, an acrid sting set alight by the time it reaches his chest. He grimaces, just a bit, but it gets the job done.

Plus, he has no right to complain. This is good vodka, not like the cheap shit the soldiers on the front lines had to stomach on nights when the liquor was the only thing keeping you warm. That had been his first experience with it really. Sure, he’d imbibed champagne before at parties, but vodka always made her hair stand on end. Yet, when it was the only thing you had to take the edge off of the constant stench of blood, you got used to it quickly.

Ivan sighs. Three glasses in and he’s still back in Manchuria, isn’t he? But who really needs to keep track, anyway?

Natalya would. She thinks that one should maintain one’s composure at all times. But Natalya hasn’t lived through three years in hell. Well, that might not be exactly true. Natalya has a past of her own, one that he’s only seen glimpses into. He had been there for some of it, of course, but he has no idea what occurred after he’d left. After their father had sent him away.

Ivan has two very different pictures of his father in his head: before and after. After being after his mother had passed, of course. He can see him there, with her, gazing into her eyes, grasping her hand and rubbing at the thick band of metal on her finger. Before, he’d taken Natalya to boring ballets and poured over old history books with Ivan. He wasn’t necessarily a jovial man, he rarely smiled, and always held the stiff stance of a military man, but he had shown his love for his family in small ways.

After, he seemed to retreat inward, both literally and metaphorically. There were no more trips to St. Petersburg, so no more ballets. And there was no time to even listen to Maria’s piano playing, let alone read with Ivan. Every waking moment of his, it seemed, was spent down in the cellar, often dragging Natalya after him. Once he tried to ask him: “Why do you only let Natalya see what you’re working on?”

“Because she is special,” was his terse reply. He didn’t say it, of course, but Ivan knew what he really meant: that Ivan was not special. It seemed that Ivan could never be good enough for his father.

Even now, as he sits alone, drinking in the deserted library, he knows that he is still not enough. As the head of the family, this very library is his now. But it doesn’t feel like it. What did he even achieve to deserve it? Generations of his ancestors lived their lives as military men, were even decorated and honored for it. Ivan was only in Manchuria for three years and he cringes every time someone opens a bottle of champagne. Pathetic. He is a pathetic, worthless waste of a Volkov. If only Natalya had been born a boy, then she would have been the son that their father always wanted. She’s always been the strong one, the one able to hold it all together. Maybe that’s why he’s always hovered around her so.

So maybe that’s why, the one time that she wasn’t strong, he tried to be. Natalya always hated the cellar, and did everything she could to avoid following their father down into those depths. She never breathed a word of what happened down there, but it was clear that the subject upset her, so Ivan didn’t pry. As they grew older, she started resisting their father more and more, until one day Ivan heard them arguing from his bedroom. This was nothing new, but then suddenly he heard a harsh clapping sound. He rushed out of the room, only to see Natalya’s cheek reddened, tears slipping out of the corner of her eye, and their father’s hand around her wrist.

Ivan didn’t know what came over him. He was usually one to avoid conflict, but he ran up and with all his might wrenched her wrist from his grasp. He stood between them, glancing back and forth between two sets of shocked eyes.

“Enough!” he said. “That’s enough. Can’t you see that she doesn’t want to go with you? I don’t know what on God’s earth you’re doing down there, but whatever it is, you don’t need to take the rest of us down with you.”

Their father sneered, and muttered something about foolish children, but he backed off. Maybe from shock more than any kind of remorse, or maybe just because Ivan was taller than him now. Natalya seemed relieved, but the encounter left Ivan with an odd sort of trepidation. Their father was obsessed with his “work” and Natalya’s involvement in it. He would do something sooner or later.

It turned out to be sooner, as it was only three days later that their father announced it was time for Ivan to begin his military career. It was the family tradition, of course, every Volkov man as far back as anyone could remember has served as an officer of some kind. But Ivan was already nineteen. By that point he’d just assumed that their father had forgotten about it. Ivan was much more suited for books than weapons anyway.

Of course, ever if it remained unspoken between them, Ivan knew what it really was for: a punishment. If he was going to get in the way, be a nuisance, then he would have to go. The only reason his father hadn’t entirely abandoned him at this point was because he was his only son, his only heir.

The fact that he would be willing to throw all that away for his work frightened Ivan.

He was to be the aide-de-camp to an old friend of his father’s, currently serving on the front in Manchuria, where the imperial army was in the process of subduing what was left of the Chinese army, and he was to leave in one week.

And that was the start of everything. He doesn’t regret stepping in, of course, he just wishes that he could have been stronger, could have forced their father to let him stay somehow. Ivan was taller, sure, but at the time he hadn’t filled out yet, more of a scholar than a fighter. In the worst case, his father could have overpowered him. And of course, if he hadn’t taken the post his father had gotten him, he would have been considered a deserter and wouldn’t have been able to stay anyway.

The night before he left was the worst. He didn’t know when, but at some point he found himself wandering out to the field of sunflowers behind the house. He hadn’t ventured there in years, not since he and Natalya were children. But as he listened to the gentle night breeze blowing through the thick stalks, he immediately felt at ease.

Ivan plopped down on the loose dirt, and just simply stared up at the stars through the gaps in the petals. Just where would he be tomorrow at this time? Already worlds away from the quiet, gentle manor house, away from his books and his bed, and away from his sisters, and who knew when he would be back. Who knew if he would be back… And if by the grace of the almighty he did make it home, who knew what kind of a person he would be.

“I knew that I would find you out here,” murmured a voice, and Ivan leaned back to find Natalya peering at him through the large heads of the sunflowers.

“It’s quiet,” was all he said as she settled down next to him. They sat there, just a few inches apart, staring up at the black sky together. Against the cold, Natalya’s warmth next to him was comforting.

“I’m…” Natalya finally broke the silence. “...Sorry. This is all my fault. Maybe I should just do what father says…”

He turned to her. “No, no. I don’t know what father is always doing in the cellar, and I don’t want to know, but clearly it is something that upsets you and that he should have never involved you in.” He grabbed her shoulders. “Keep fighting after I’m gone. Please.”

Solemnly, she nodded. “I will.”

“Tasha, I…” With one crack, the whole dam in his head broke. “I’m so scared.” His head fell downwards in defeat, and Natalya moved to cradle him in her arms with no hesitation. “I’m so scared of leaving you.”

As he started shaking, she patted his head, and hummed softly under her breath. There was nothing she could really say, after all.

“I promise,” she muttered into his hair, a few minutes after the shaking had subsided. “That by the time you get back, I’ll make everything better.”

He didn’t know what came over him, whether the very human desperation for some sort of connection, or Asmodeus dragging him down into the pits of hell itself. Maybe it was the way the soft moonlight made her pale skin and hair glow. In the end, the reason doesn’t matter, for the simple fact remains that Ivan leaned in and kissed her.

It only took a second to register that this was not some pretty peasant girl from the village a few miles down the road but his sister, and he pulled away. But much to his surprise, Natalya didn’t frown, or back away in disgust. She just stared at him oddly for a moment, grabbed his sleeve, and pulled him back in.

By this point, Ivan has forgone the glass altogether and is drinking straight from the decanter. To this day, he still doesn’t know when he fell in love with her. Maybe it’s been there all along. Unfortunately, this sin, this affront to Our Lady and God himself, is a part of him now. Just another one of his failings to add to the ever-growing list. He should be married right now, maybe with an heir already, God willing, but he is so afraid that in the throes of lust he would call her name instead. Ivan can’t live without Natalya.

She was the only thing that kept him going in Manchuria. While other men had pictures of their lovers or wives, he had a picture of her. The first two years were not actually so bad. There was an occasional bout of action, but the war with the Chinese was winding down smoothly. Yet just when Ivan thought he might be able to go home and put all of this behind him, the Japanese saw the weakness in the barely victorious Russian army, and didn’t pass up the opportunity.

The last year was hell. He even had to stop writing to Natalya because they couldn’t even get letters through some of the time. The Japanese fought viciously, and without cease. To this day, try as he might, Ivan can’t remember the specifics. He was given orders and he followed them. All he remembers are the battlefields.

At first, he found it hard to even pull the trigger of his rifle, but that feeling faded quickly. It’s hard to see the enemy as human when there’s an acquaintance or maybe even a friend next to you one minute, but one loud bang from the other side of the battlefield and now he’s missing half his face.

An odd malaise would come over him whenever he held that gun, an anger driven by fear. Either he would shoot, or he would be shot. It was a simple decision, really. Soon that rifle became an extension of his arm, light as a feather, and he felt numb as the light left the enemies’ eyes.

That was the scariest part. He didn’t even feel fear anymore. He just felt nothing.

By the time he was shipped home, initially suffering from an infected gunshot in his leg, he wasn’t even sure if they had won or lost. He didn’t even register that he was going home at all until after finally recovering in a hospital in St. Petersburg, where they told him that they would need him to join a platoon in the city for one more assignment before being formally discharged. It seemed they were short on men in the capital, and some of the proles had been stirring up trouble, calling it a “worker’s revolution” or some such nonsense.

It was all rather last minute, so Ivan didn’t really have his rifle, just a side-arm. Try as he might, Ivan can hardly remember that day at all—or maybe the vodka is finally working. Just a lot of screaming, and one idiot child who tried to shoot him with a gun he clearly didn’t know how to use, and that is all.

He got a nice little medal for his lapel, a slap on the back and a ticket home. Ivan didn’t even know what that was anymore. He didn’t even know if he was a person, or just a weapon. The gun was no longer a part of him, he was a part of it.

Pathetic. His ancestors had been heroes, great leaders, and here Ivan was three years later, still not sure how to tell up from down. Try as he might, he can’t return to the manor of his youth. This is a dream, and he must be a ghost haunting those Manchurian battlefields still.

The world around him is made of China, and he’s so scared that it’ll break at the slightest touch. Even Natalya. Especially Natalya. She is his porcelain rock, the only thing keeping him tethered to this earth, but even when he’s holding her as tightly as he dares he’s not sure if she’s even real. Maybe she’s really the Natalya from Manchuria, just a picture of a smiling girl that he keeps in his breast pocket. Maybe someday he’ll finally be able to come home to the real one.

The room is spinning now. Maybe if he has another drink it’ll stop. He tips the decanter into his bone-dry mouth only to realize that it up and drank itself while he wasn’t looking. Or maybe he did. He’s too dizzy to get anymore, and his tongue is too thick to call for anyone. In frustration he drops the decanter and watches it smash on the floor. Maybe the rest of the world is a little more steady than he thought, if that didn’t break it entirely.

“I-Ivan…?” very distantly, he hears a voice, and his head shoots up. Too fast, too fast. He feels like he’s a shaken snow-globe, complete with white flecks dancing merrily across his vision, and he nearly falls over. Through the blurred haze, he makes out a figure at the door.

For just a brief moment, he thinks it’s Natalya. Good. At least she can pick him up and he won’t have to think for a while. But just as the weight on his shoulders starts to abate, the woman takes a few steps forward. She is not Natalya.

“Marie…” Ivan groans, face-planting onto the table. She knows very little about the state of his brain. She’s dealing with far more than he is, what with her illness and all. Part of him doesn’t want to worry her, but somewhere deep down, he’s really just ashamed. He’s not in any physical pain like she is, and yet she’s not the one drinking herself into a stupor alone in an empty library.

“I heard something break, are you al…” she trails off, noticing the glass on the floor and then seeing the empty bar cart. “...Oh…”

Peering up at her over his arms, he mumbles nearly inaudibly. “Unfortunately, I am… not… alright at the moment.”

“I can see that.”

She leans down, and it takes a second of hearing the tinkling glass that he realizes she’s trying to pick up his mess. “Please, don’t bother,” he stops her, reaching for her arm. “It’s my mess to clea—”

Just as he touches her, Maria shifts her weight and a floorboard creaks. At the sudden noise he jerks backwards, nearly pushing his chair over as images of mud and screaming pass in front of his eyes. For a second, he can barely see as the snow-globe dust threatens to blanket his vision entirely. All he can do is sit there panting until he recovers.

Maria is standing now, her fingers massaging her temple, but when she sees him staring back at her she seems to rally. “Ivan…” she sighs, not unkindly. “It’s not good to drink so much in the middle of the day.”

He has no excuse for himself, but he tries anyway. “I was just… thinking of past times. I thought I would just have one to take the edge off but, well, here we are.”

“I don’t know how you stand the taste straight up like that.” Maria crinkles her nose at the thought. “It tastes like disinfectant to me.”

“I drink it so that my insides will stay clean.” God above, he’s such an idiot in this state. But it’s better than telling her just how he got used to it. “There’s no need to worry, Marie,” he adds as her forehead wrinkles in concern. “I’ll be fine, really.” Ivan tries to stand to show her, but of course he really isn’t fine. He was hoping that maybe he could hide it well enough to abate her concern. Alas, the world quickly skews sideways and he nearly falls over again.

“Brother, I get the distinct impression that you’re lying.” She rests his arm over her shoulders. “Come on, come on. Let’s get you to your room. The only thing you can do is sleep it off. Let’s just hope we don’t run into Tasha. She would not be happy with you.”

His face turns even redder than it already is. Maria is small and frail even at the best of times, and now she is having to bear half of his not-slight weight all the way across the manor.

They’ve been silent for a few minutes as he’s mulled over this, but Ivan finally speaks. “I’m sorry I’m such a failure as a brother.” That last word comes out a little choked. “I’m supposed to be the head of this family, but you and Tasha have always had to do so much in my stead.”

“You’re not a failure, Ivan. If you’re a failure, then what does that make me? I can’t even get out of bed some days.”

“Yet you still do, more than you probably should.”

“As do you, I think.”

Ivan stays silent. He doesn’t have the strength left to confirm the question she just implied.

So she just sighs. “I think we’re each a little broken in some way, all of us. All we can do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

And even if Ivan nearly trips over his own feet a few times, that is what they do, all the way through the darkened manor…

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