Olga's Story: Read an Extract
July 1900: far away from anywhere, in a village in southern Siberia, a black banner tied to a high wooden gate was drifting in the light summer breeze. It was a warning to all those who passed the rough wooden house in the small hamlet of Yelan that someone with diphtheria lay within. The villagers who passed the house -- the sons and daughters of Cossack families who had lived there for generations, peasants who had come to escape the famines of the Southern Volga, and elderly Polish revolutionaries who had been exiled there some 35 years before -- crossed themselves and murmured expressions of dismay. But two-year-old Anya Yunter was already dead.
Poor child. Some said that it was just a case of croup and sometimes croup killed you. But diphtheria -- who could do anything about diphtheria? In any case, as everybody knew, a child was lucky to live to grow up. The Yunter family were fortunate. The father, Semyon Vassilyevich worked for one of the richest men in this part of Siberia. He already had four healthy children and what’s more, there was another on the way.
The white coffin was tiny. It stood on a small table in a corner of the long low room, two fat candles at its head and feet. Above it, clouds of incense rose from a small hanging censer. On a rough wooden shelf nailed into the wall the red glow of the lampada illuminated the Yunter family’s most treasured possession: the precious face of St Vladimir, shrouded in a heavy silver frame. Beyond it, a portrait of His Majesty the Tsar stuck out unevenly from the wall of whitewashed logs. Outside the sun was shining, but in the room the windows were closed and the curtains were drawn. Within the coffin, framed by the wild flowers placed around her on the pillow, baby Anya’s tiny moon shaped face lay closed to life, as pale as the linen sheet tucked beneath her chin.
The heat of the day intensified but still people from the village came. One by one they passed in front of the coffin, making the sign of the cross and muttering a quiet prayer over her body. Several of the women, their heads covered in dark scarves, bent to kiss the forehead of the dead child. As they did so, the faces of their own dead children materialised before them, and sobs rose in their throats. Incense mingled with the fragrance of flowers, and the odours of poorly washed bodies, tobacco and drink. For a time the room in the small log house was crowded, then people drifted away, out into the light of the hot July day.
Olga never remembered who told her the circumstances of her birth. Perhaps it was her godmother, Yevlampia Semyonovna? Most likely, it was Filipovna, the family housekeeper and her old nurse, who first told her the story. How her mother had cried and cried when she first knew she was expecting her. And how the days surrounding it were terrible.
First her little sister Anya had come down with what seemed to be a cold; she had pointed to her throat, saying it was sore. But the next day her glands were so swollen that she could not move her neck. She was feverish, and began to cough. Filipovna pushed the children – her sister Lydia, and brothers, Vasya, Volodya and Kolya -- outside, and mounted a curtain round Anya’s bed. Her mother, Anna Vassilyevna, ponderous and heavy with her pregnancy, disappeared behind it to sit and nurse her. The children were forbidden to see their little sister. That night Anya’s breathing was deep and rasping. It grew worse and the sound filled the house and kept them from sleeping. Early the next morning her father, Semyon Vassilyevich came out from behind the curtain after seeing his wife and daughter. By now Anya’s breath was whistling. His big wide head was bent and his eyes looked grim.
Within hours it was clear that Anya’s illness had taken a serious toll on her mother. The child she was expecting was not due for another four weeks. But now the first pains began to overtake her. Protesting and weeping, she withdrew to her bedroom. Semyon ran to fetch the mid-wife.
On his return from the village, Semyon found his wife, her face white and pinched with pain and her forehead beaded with sweat, propped against pillows in the middle of the bed. ‘Semyon Vassilyevich,’ Anna’s voice was weak. ‘You know that I never wanted this child, and after this, I promise you I will not have another. But I have done what I have to do many times before. I will do it again now. But you must look to Anya. Guard her with your life. Swab her throat with kerosene. It is our only hope.’
From that moment on Semyon sat beside the sick child, holding her hands and bathing her hot face waving a pillowcase above her, to create a current of air. From time to time she fell into a doze. When she awoke and while she lay calm, he tried in a clumsy way to swab her throat. But every time he tried to swab her throat Anya gagged and choked.
Many years later Semyon told Olga how he remembered that day. How late that afternoon, exhausted and drenched with sweat, he had stepped out into the yard for a breath of air. But there was no relief. The sun was still high and heat rose from the ground. Particles of dust hung in the air. The children were nowhere to be seen. In one corner Petya, the Cossack stable hand, had sat bare-chested, his fingers damp and grimy, stripping bark from saplings of birch. He came from a village on the Mongolian border called Kudara, where his family were descendants of a soldier from the Don valley in the Ukraine, who had been called up, generations ago, to bear arms in the conquest of Siberia.
Semyon told Olga how he had watched the boy as he pulled at the bark, peeling long strips to reveal the pale of the wood, and how he caught the fresh scent of sap in the air. After a few moments he had gone to lean on the rails of the fence beside the gate. High above him, the blue sky was broken by cloud. Across the track was a long sloping meadow. In the distance he saw the Tomakov family, still at work, bending and sweeping, cutting the long grass with scythes. The headscarves of the women shone bright in the sun, their wide skirts tucked up above their knees. Far away towards the northwest, along the long straight track that came from Okino-Klyuchi he could see a tiny cloud of dust approaching. He wondered who might be on the road at this hour.
‘You know, Olgusha,’ he said, using the pet name from her childhood, ‘Days could go by before visitors came in this direction. Standing at the edge of a valley, there was nothing between that village of Yelan and the border except stony mountains covered with forest. I was in despair. I did not dream what salvation that tiny cloud of dust would bring to us.’
It was an hour or so later, as the sun was sinking over the hills to the west, that the sound of horses was heard drawing up at the gate. The children appeared from the stables, clambered up on the fence, and leaned over to see who was in the carriage. Petya swung back the high wooden gates, and a light- weight phaeton swept into the yard. A plump middle-aged woman, wearing a black silk cloak covered in dust stepped down.
‘Tyotya! Tyotya!’ the children had circled round her, and she bent to give each one a hug. To them, Yevlampia Semyonovna was like a favourite aunt. She had known Anna Vassilyevna since she was a little girl. The daughter of a successful merchant engaged in the tea trade with China, at the age of seventeen she had married Petr Martinskevich, a doctor from Poland who was twenty years her senior. For years Martinskevich had been the regional doctor in Troitskosavsk, one hundred versts to the southwest of Yelan. A year before he had died, leaving Yevlampia with little more than his name. Not long afterwards Anna had written to tell her of her pregnancy, and how much she did not want this child. Alarmed, Yevlampia had promised to come and stay in good time to see her through her confinement. She had not arrived a moment too soon.
Yevlampia wasted no time assessing the situation. She unpacked the herbs and clean linen she had brought with her and prepared an infusion to slow Anna’s labour, and a warm poultice to ease Anya’s breathing. All through the night Yevlampia moved from one end of the house to the other, her felt slippers padding softly on the wooden boards, working to save Anya and her mother. Each time she passed the shelf of icons she offered a brief prayer. But Anya could not be saved. Not long after midnight, she gave a last strangled wheeze and faded from life.
At the same time the pace of Anna’s labour quickened. Her new baby, a girl, was born just before dawn. She was so thin and sickly that she was not expected to survive. Anna Vassilyevna lay spent, eyes closed, unable to speak. Yevlampia dared not tell her that death had taken Anya. Silently, the women bathed her, gave her fresh linen and took the newborn baby from the room.
It was Yevlampia who told the mid-wife to find a wet-nurse and broke the news to Semyon that he had a daughter. But the baby was very frail and his wife was dangerously ill. She told him how, after the birth, Anna shut her eyes and looked away, refusing to acknowledge her child. When Filipovna wrapped the baby and laid her down beside her on the bed, Anna clenched her teeth and pushed her away.
‘As soon as she has rested,’ Yevlampia told him, ‘you must go to her. You must tell her about Anya. And you must remind her of her vows. She cannot refuse to look after this child. As I have said, it too may not live.’
Later that day Semyon emerged from the bedchamber. The last rays of the sun filtered into the white washed room, falling in pools of light on the polished boards of the floor. Anna would see the baby now he told Yevlampia. And as today was the feast of Saints Olga and Helen, so the new baby would be named. Because of the danger to her life, the christening would take place at once. He was off to find the priest.
Late that evening three tapers were lit beside the icon of St Vladimir. Alone with the priest, holding a candle each, Yevlampia and the eldest son of the family, nine year old Vasya, stood as godparents to the child. In the dim light, they watched as he anointed her fragile breast with holy oil, her tiny ears, hands and feet. Holding her up in his hands towards the east, the source of light and spiritual joy, he declared Olga Helen, the youngest child of the Yunter family, baptised. Two days later, at the Church of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, the Yunter family buried Anya.
Siberia – as Olga knew it