Please welcome internationally acclaimed author Belinda Alexandra who is here today to fill us in on her newest, historical WWII era novel, White Gardenia. Enjoy our chat!
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 2/17/2015
Edition description: Reprint
From internationally bestselling author Belinda Alexandra comes a sweeping, emotional journey that “depicts vividly the powerful lifelong bond between mothers and daughters” (Paullina Simons, author of The Bronze Horseman).
In a district of the city of Harbin, a haven for White Russian families since Russia’s Communist Revolution, Alina Kozlova must make a heartbreaking decision if her only child, Anya, is to survive the final days of World War...
Read an Excerpt:
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
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
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
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 the cat who lived in the Pomerantsevs’ garden. He was a stray with
torn ears and a blind eye but he had grown fat and contented under Olga’s
attention. I pressed my face into his musky fur and wept. Stories like
Ying-ying’s were whispered all over Harbin and even I had seen enough of
Japanese cruelty to hate them too.
The Japanese had annexed Manchuria in 1937,
although it had been effectively invaded six years earlier. As the war became
more intense, the Japanese issued an edict that all rice was to go to their
army. The Chinese were reduced to acorn meal as a staple food, and this
couldn’t be digested by the very young or the sick. One day I was running along
the twisted, leafy path by the river that flowed past our house. We had been
let out from school early by our new Japanese principal, who had instructed us
to go home and tell our parents of the recent Japanese victories in Manchuria.
I was wearing my white convent uniform and enjoying the patterns the filtered
sunlight made over me as I skipped along. I passed Doctor Chou, the local
physician, on my way. Doctor Chou was trained in both Western and traditional
medicine and was carrying a box of vials under his arm. He was famous for his
sharp dress sense, and that day he was decked out in a well-cut Western suit
and coat with a Panama hat. The mild weather seemed to please him too and we
smiled at each other.
I passed him and reached the bend in the river
where the forest was darkest and draped in vines. I was stunned by a loud
shriek and stopped in my tracks when a Chinese farmer with a bruised and
bleeding face lurched towards me. Japanese soldiers burst through the trees
after him and surrounded us, waving their bayonets. The leader drew his sword
and pressed it under the man’s chin, making an indent in the flesh of his neck.
He lifted the man’s eyes to his, but I could see in their dimness and in the
droop of his mouth that the light had already gone out of him. The farmer’s
jacket was streaming water and one of the soldiers took a knife and ripped open
the left panel. Rice dropped in damp clumps to the ground.
The soldiers made the man kneel, taunting him and
howling like wolves. The pack leader plunged his sword into the man’s other
jacket panel and blood and rice flowed out together. Vomit trickled from the
man’s lips. I heard glass smash and turned to see Doctor Chou standing behind
me, his vials broken and leaking on the rocky path. Horror was etched in the
grooves of his face. I stepped back, unnoticed by the soldiers, and into his
The soldiers were grunting, excited by the smell of
blood and fear. The leader pulled at the prisoner’s collar, exposing his neck.
In a single swoop he dropped his sword and sliced the man’s head off at the
shoulders. The bloody flesh rolled into the river, turning the water the color
of sorghum wine. The corpse remained upright, as if praying, and gushed blood
in spurts. The soldiers stood back from it calmly and without guilt or disgust.
Pools of blood and fluid collected around our feet and stained our shoes and
the soldiers began to laugh. The killer lifted his sword to the sunlight and
frowned at the muck that dripped from it. He looked around for something with
which to clean it and laid eyes on my dress. He grabbed for me, but the
outraged doctor pushed me farther inside his coat, muttering curses at the
soldiers. The leader grinned, mistaking Doctor Chou’s curses for protests, and
wiped his glistening sword across the doctor’s shoulder. It must have disgusted
Doctor Chou, who had just witnessed the murder of a fellow Chinese, but he
remained silent in order to protect me.
My father was alive then, and that evening, after
he had tucked me into bed and listened with restrained anger to my story, I
heard him tell my mother on the landing: “It’s because their own leaders treat
them so cruelly that they have lost all semblance of humanity. Their generals
are to blame.”
* * *
At first the General brought little change to our
lives and kept mainly to himself. He arrived with a futon, a gas cooker and a
large trunk. We were only aware of his existence each morning, just after
sunrise, when the black car would pull up outside our gate and the chickens in
the yard would flutter as the General passed through them. And then in the
evenings, when he would return late, weariness in his eyes, and give a nod to
my mother and a smile to me before retiring to his room.
The General conducted himself with surprisingly
good manners for a member of the occupying army. He paid rent and for anything
he used, and after a while started bringing home rationed or banned items such
as rice and sweet bean dumplings. He would place these luxuries, wrapped in
cloth, on the dining table or kitchen bench before going to his room. My mother
eyed the packages suspiciously and would not touch them, but she did not stop
me from accepting the gifts. The General must have come to understand that my
mother’s goodwill could not be bought with items that had been taken from the
Chinese, as the gifts were soon supplemented with secret acts of mending. One
day we would find that a previously jammed window had been fixed, on another
that a squeaky door had been oiled or a drafty corner sealed.
But it wasn’t long before the General’s presence
became more invasive, like a potted vine that finds its way into the soil and
takes over the garden.
On the fortieth day after my father’s death, we
visited the Pomerantsevs. The lunch was more lighthearted than usual, although
it was only the four of us since the Lius would no longer come when we were
Boris had managed to buy vodka, and even I was
allowed some to “warm” me. He amused us by suddenly whipping off his hat and
revealing his closely cropped hair. My mother gingerly patted it and joked,
“Boris, who did this cruel thing to you? You look like a Siamese cat.”
Olga poured some more vodka, teasing me by
pretending to pass over my glass several times, then scowled. “He paid money
for someone to do that to him! Some fancy new Chinese barber in the old
Her husband grinned his yellow-toothed, happy grin
and laughed. “She’s just upset because it looks better than when she does it.”
“When I saw you looking like such a fool, my weak
old heart nearly gave out,” his wife retorted.
Boris took the vodka bottle and poured another
round for everyone except his wife. When she frowned at him, he lifted his
eyebrows and said: “Mind your weak old heart now, Olga.”
My mother and I walked home, holding hands and
kicking at the freshly fallen snow. She sang a song about gathering mushrooms.
Every time she laughed little puffs of steam floated from her mouth. She looked
beautiful, despite the grief that was etched behind her eyes. I wanted to be
like her but I had inherited my father’s strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes and
When we reached our gate, my mother’s gaze narrowed
at the sight of the Japanese lantern hanging over it. She rushed me inside,
peeling off her coat and boots before helping me with mine. She jumped to the
sitting room doorway, urging me to hurry so that I didn’t catch cold from the
tiled floor in the entranceway. When she turned to face the room she stiffened
like a panicked cat. I stepped up behind her. Piled in one corner and covered
with a red cloth was our furniture. Next to it a window alcove had been
converted into a shrine complete with a scroll and ikebana flower arrangement.
The rugs were gone and had been replaced by tatami mats.
My mother stormed through the house in search of
the General, but he was not in his room or in the yard. We waited by the coal
heater until nightfall, my mother rehearsing angry words for him. But the
General did not come home that night and she lapsed into quiet despondency. We
fell asleep, snuggled side by side near the dying fire.
The General did not return to the house until two
days later, by which time exhaustion had drained the fight out of my mother.
When he burst through the door with handfuls of tea, dress cloth and thread, he
seemed to expect us to be grateful. In the delight and mischief in his eyes I
saw my father again, the provider who found pleasure in securing treasures for
his loved ones.
The General changed into a kimono of gray silk and
set about cooking us vegetables and bean curd. My mother, whose elegant antique
chairs had been packed away and who had no choice but to sit cross-legged on a
cushion, stared out in front of her, purse-mouthed and indignant, while the
house soaked in the aroma of sesame seed oil and soy sauce. I gaped at the
lacquered plates the General set out on the low table, speechless but thankful
for the small mercy that the General was cooking for us. I would have hated to
see what would have happened had he ordered my mother to cook for him. He was
obviously not like the Japanese men I had seen in our village, whose women had
to wait on them hand and foot, and who made their wives walk several paces
behind them, burdened by the weight of whatever goods they had bought at the
markets, while they strutted on ahead, empty-handed, heads held high. Olga once
said that the Japanese race had no women, just donkeys.
The General placed the noodles in front of us and,
with nothing more than a grunt of “Itadakimasu,” began eating. He seemed not to
notice that my mother did not touch her plate, or that I sat staring at the
juicy noodles, my mouth salivating. I was torn between my hunger pangs and my
loyalty to my mother. As soon as the General finished eating, I rushed to clear
the plates so that he wouldn’t see that we had not eaten his meal. It was the
best compromise I could make, for I did not want my mother’s annoyance to bring
any harm to her.
When I returned from the kitchen, the General was
straightening out a roll of Japanese paper. It wasn’t white and shiny like
Western paper, nor was it completely matt. It was luminous. The General was on
his hands and knees while my mother looked on, an exasperated expression on her
face. The scene reminded me of a fable my father had once read to me about
Marco Polo’s first appearance before Kublai Khan, the ruler of China. In a
gesture contrived to demonstrate European superiority, Polo’s assistants
unraveled a bolt of silk in front of the emperor and his courtiers. The material
unfurled into a glistening stream that began with Polo and ended at the feet of
Khan. After a moment’s silence the emperor and his entourage burst into
laughter. Polo soon discovered that it was hard to impress people who had been
producing fine silk centuries before the Europeans stopped wearing animal
The General beckoned for me to sit next to him and
laid out an ink pot and calligraphy brush. He dipped the brush and set it to
the paper, pouring out the feminine swirls of Japanese hiragana. I recognized
the letters from the lessons we’d had when the Japanese had first taken over my
school, before they decided it was better not to educate us at all and shut it
“Anya-chan,” the General said in his jumbled
Russian, “I teach you Japanese characters. Important for you to learn.”
I watched him deftly make the syllables come to
life. Ta, chi, tsu, te, to. His fingers moved as if he were painting rather
than writing and his hands mesmerized me. The skin was smooth and hairless, the
nails as clean as bleached pebbles.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself and your
people,” cried my mother, snatching the paper from the General. She tried to
tear it, but it was sinewy and pliant. So she scrunched it into a ball and
threw it across the room. The paper dropped soundlessly to the floor.
I sucked in a breath. She glanced at me and stopped
herself from saying anything more. She was trembling with anger but also with
fear at what her outburst might cost us.
The General sat with his hands on his knees, not moving.
The expression on his face was neutral. It was impossible to tell whether he
was angry or just thinking. The tip of the brush dripped ink onto the tatami
mat, where it spread out into a dark stain, like a wound. After a while the
General reached into his kimono sleeve and took out a photograph and gave it to
me. It was a picture of a woman in a black kimono and a young girl. The girl
wore her hair in a topknot and had eyes as pretty as those of a deer. She
looked almost the same age as me. The woman was glancing slightly out of the
frame. Her hair was pulled away from her face. Her lips were powdered white and
filled in with a narrow bow, but this couldn’t hide the fullness of her mouth.
The expression on her handsome face was formal, but something about the turn of
her head suggested she was smiling at someone off camera.
“I have a little girl at home in Nagasaki with her
mother and no father,” the General said. “And you are a little girl without a
father. I must take care of you.”
With that he stood up, bowed and left the room,
leaving my mother and me standing with our mouths open, unable to think of
anything to say.
* * *
Every second Tuesday the knife sharpener would come
to our street. He was an old Russian with a lined face and mournful eyes. He
had no hat and kept his head warm by wrapping it in rags. His sharpening wheel
was strapped to a sled pulled by two Alsatians, and I would play with the dogs
while my mother and our neighbors gathered to sharpen their knives and axes.
One Tuesday Boris approached my mother and whispered that one of our neighbors,
Nikolai Botkin, had disappeared. My mother’s face froze for a moment before she
whispered back, “The Japanese or the Communists?”
Boris shrugged. “I saw him only the day before
yesterday at the barber in the old quarter. He talked too much. Boasted too
much about how the Japs are losing the war and that they are just concealing it
from us. The next day,” said Boris, clenching his hand and then springing it
open to the air, “he is gone. Like dust. That man’s mouth was too big for his
own good. You never know whose side the other customers are on. Some Russians
want the Japs to win.”
At that moment there was a loud cry, “Kazaaa!,” and
our garage doors flew open and a man ran out. He was naked, except for a
knotted bandana pulled low on his brow. I didn’t realize that it was the
General until I saw him throw himself into the snow and leap up for joy. Boris
tried to cover my eyes but through the gaps in his fingers I was startled to
see the General’s shriveled appendage jiggling between his legs.
Olga slapped her knees and screeched with laughter,
while the other neighbors stared, openmouthed, in amazement. But my mother saw
the hot tub that had been constructed in her sacred garage and screamed. This last
insult was too much for her to bear. Boris dropped his hands and I turned to
see my mother as she had been before my father’s death, her cheeks glowing and
her eyes on fire. She raced into the yard, picking up a spade by the gate on
her way. The General glanced from his hot tub to my mother, as if he were
expecting her to marvel at his ingenuity.
“How dare you!” she screamed at him.
The smile died on his face but I could see that he
couldn’t comprehend her reaction.
“How dare you!” she screamed again, hitting him
across the cheek with the spade handle.
Olga gasped but the General didn’t seem worried
about the neighbors witnessing my mother’s insurrection. He didn’t take his
eyes from her face.
“It’s one of the few things I have left to remember
him by,” my mother said, losing her breath.
The General’s face reddened. He stood up and
retreated into the house without a word.
The following day the General dismantled the hot
tub and offered us the wood for the fire. He took away the tatami mats and put
back the Turkish carpets and sheepskin rugs for which my father had once traded
his gold watch.
Later in the afternoon he asked if he could borrow
my bicycle. My mother and I peered through the curtains to watch the General
trundle down the road. My bike was too small for him. The pedals were short, so
that with each rotation his knees passed his hips. But he handled the bicycle skillfully
and in a few minutes disappeared through the trees.
By the time the General returned, my mother and I
had adjusted the furniture and rugs back to almost the very inch where they had
The General glanced around the room. A shadow passed
over his face. “I wanted to make it beautiful for you but I did not succeed,”
he said, using his foot to examine the magenta rug that had triumphed over his
simple tatami. “Perhaps we are too different.”
My mother almost smiled but stopped herself. I thought
the General was about to leave, but he turned one more time to glance back at
her, not at all like a regal military man but more like a shy boy who has been
scolded by his mother. “Maybe I have found something on whose beauty we can
agree?” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a glass box.
My mother hesitated before taking it from him, but
in the end couldn’t resist her own curiosity. I leaned forward, compelled to
see what the General had brought. My mother opened the lid and a delicate scent
wafted into the air. I knew it at once, although it was something I had never
experienced before. The perfume became stronger, floating around the room and
enveloping us in its spell. It was a blend of magic and romance, the exotic
East and the decadent West. It made my heart ache and my skin tingle.
My mother’s eyes were on me. They were glistening
with tears. She held out the box and I stared at the creamy white flower
inside. The sight of the perfect bloom set in a foliage of glossy green leaves
conjured up a place where the light was dappled and birds sang day and night. I
wanted to cry with the beauty of it, for instantly I knew the name of the
flower, although until then I had only ever seen it in my imagination. The tree
originated from China but was tropical and would not grow in Harbin, where the
frosts were brutal.
The white gardenia was a legend my father had spun
for my mother and me many times. He had first seen the flower himself when he
had accompanied his family to the Tsar’s summer ball at the Grand Palace. He
would describe to us the women in their flowing gowns with jewels sparkling in
their hair, the footmen and the carriages, and a supper of fresh caviar, smoked
goose and sterlet soup served at round glass tables. Later there was a fireworks
display choreographed to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. After
meeting the Tsar and his family, my father walked into a room whose glass doors
were thrown open to the garden. That was when he first saw them. The porcelain
pots of gardenias had been imported from China for the occasion. In the summer
air their delicate scent was intoxicating. The flowers seemed to nod and
receive my father gracefully, as the Tsarina and her daughters had done just
moments before. From that night on my father had been enamored of the memory of
northern white nights and a bewitching flower whose perfume conjured up
More than once my father had tried to purchase a
bottle of the scent so that my mother and I could relive this memory too, but
no one in Harbin had heard of the enchanting flower and his efforts were always
“Where did you get this?” my mother asked the
General, running her fingertip over the dewy petals.
“From a Chinaman called Huang,” he answered. “He
has a hothouse outside of the city.”
But my mother barely heard his answer, her mind was
a million miles away on a St Petersburg night. The General turned to go. I
followed him to the foot of the stairs.
“Sir,” I whispered to him. “How did you know?”
He raised his eyebrows and stared at me. His
bruised cheek was the color of a fresh plum.
“About the flower,” I said.
But the General only sighed, touched my shoulder
and said, “Goodnight.”
* * *
By the time spring came and the snow started
melting there were rumors everywhere that the Japanese were losing the war. In
the night I could hear planes and gunfire, which Boris told us was the Soviets
fighting the Japanese at the borders. “God help us,” he said, “if the Soviets
get here before the Americans.”
I decided to find out whether the Japanese were
really losing the war and hatched a plan to follow the General to his
headquarters. My first two attempts to get up before him failed when I slept
past my own usual waking time, but on the third day I was woken by a dream of
my father. He was standing before me, smiling, and saying, “Don’t worry. You
will seem all alone, but you won’t be. I will send someone.” His image faded
and I blinked at the early morning light making its way through my curtains. I
leaped out of bed into the chilly air, and only had to pull on my coat and hat,
having prepared myself by sleeping fully clothed and with my boots on. I
sneaked out the kitchen door and to the side of the garage where I had hidden
my bicycle. I crouched on the slushy ground and waited. A few minutes later the
black car pulled up at our gate. The front door opened and the General strode
out. When the car moved off, I jumped on my bicycle and pedalled furiously to
keep even a discreet distance. The sky was cloudy and the road dark and muddy.
When it reached the junction, the car stopped and I hid behind a tree. The
driver reversed a short distance and changed direction, no longer heading along
the road to the next village where the General had told us he went each day,
but taking the main one to the city. I mounted my bicycle again but when I
reached the junction I hit a rock and toppled over, slamming my shoulder into
the ground. I winced in pain and looked at my bicycle. The front spokes had
been bent by my boot. Tears leaked from my eyes and I limped back up the hill,
walking the squealing bike next to me.
Just before I reached home I saw a Chinese man peek
out from a grove of trees by the road. He looked as if he was waiting for me,
so I crossed to the other side and began running with my wonky bicycle. But he
soon caught up, greeting me in well-spoken Russian. There was something in his
glassy-eyed gaze that made me afraid and I replied with silence. “Why,” he
asked, sighing as if he were talking to a naughty sister, “do you let the
Japanese stay with you?”
“We had nothing to do with it,” I answered, my eyes
still averted. “He just came and we couldn’t say no.”
He took the handlebars of the bicycle, pretending
to help me with it, and I noticed his gloves. They were padded and shaped as if
he had apples in them instead of hands.
“They are very bad, the Japanese,” he continued.
“They have done terrible things. The Chinese people will not forget who helped
us and who helped them.” His tone was kind and intimate but his words sent a
chill through me and I forgot the ache in my shoulder. He stopped pushing the
bicycle and laid it on its side. I wanted to run but I was frozen with fear.
Slowly and deliberately he lifted his glove to my face and then pulled the
material away with the grace of a magician. He held before me a mangled mess of
badly healed flesh, twisted into a club with no fingers. I cried out at the
horror of it but knew he was not doing it for effect alone; it was a warning. I
left my bicycle and ran through the gate to my house. “My name is Tang!” the
man called out after me. “Remember it!”
I turned when I reached the door but he was gone. I
clambered up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom, my heart beating like thunder
in my chest. But when I pushed open the door I saw that she was still asleep,
her dark hair spread over the pillow. I removed my coat, gently lifted the
bedclothes and climbed in beside her. She sighed and brushed her hand against
me before falling back into a sleep as still as death.
* * *
August was the month of my thirteenth birthday, and
despite the war and my father’s death, my mother was determined to keep our
family tradition of taking me to the old quarter to celebrate. Boris and Olga
drove us into the city that day; Olga wanted to buy some spices and Boris was
going to get his hair cut again. Harbin was the place of my birth, and although
many Chinese said that we Russians never belonged nor had any right to it, I
felt that it somehow belonged to me. When we entered the city, I saw all that
was familiar and home to me in the onion-domed churches, the pastel-colored
buildings and the elaborate colonnades. Like me, my mother was born in Harbin.
She was the daughter of an engineer who had lost his job on the railways after
the Revolution. It was my noble father who had somehow connected us to Russia
and made us see ourselves in the architecture of the Tsars.
Boris and Olga dropped us off in the old quarter.
It was unusually hot and humid that day, so my mother suggested we try the
city’s speciality, vanilla bean ice cream. Our favorite café was bustling with
people and much livelier than we had seen it in years. Everyone was talking
about the rumors that the Japanese were about to surrender. My mother and I
took a table near the window. A woman at the next table was telling her older
companion that she had heard the Americans bombing the previous night, and that
a Japanese official had been murdered in her district. Her companion nodded
solemnly, running his hand through his gray beard and commenting, “The Chinese
would never dare do that if they didn’t feel that they were winning.”
After my ice cream, my mother and I took a walk
around the quarter, noticing which shops were new and remembering the shops
that had disappeared. A peddler of porcelain dolls tried to entice me with her
wares, but my mother smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry, I have something for
you at home.”
I spotted the red and white pole of a barber’s shop
with a sign in Chinese and Russian. “Look, Mama!” I said. “That must be Boris’s
barber.” I rushed to the window to peek inside. Boris was in the chair, his
face covered in shaving foam. A few other customers were waiting, smoking and
laughing like men with nothing much to do. Boris saw me in the mirror and
turned and waved. The bald-headed barber, in an embroidered jacket, also looked
up. He had a Confucian moustache and goatee and wore glasses with thick frames,
the kind popular among Chinese men. But when he saw my face pressed against the
window, he quickly turned his back to me.
“Come on, Anya,” my mother laughed, pulling my arm.
“Boris will get a bad haircut if you distract the barber. He might cut off his
ear, and then Olga will be annoyed with you.”
I followed my mother obediently, but as we neared
the corner I turned one more time towards the barber’s shop. I couldn’t see the
barber through the shine on the glass, but I realized that I knew those eyes:
they had been round and bulging and familiar to me.
When we returned home my mother sat me before her
dressing table and reverently undid my girlish plaits and swept my hair into an
elegant chignon like hers, with the hair parted at the side and bunched at the
nape of the neck. She dabbed perfume behind my ears, then showed me a velvet
box on her dresser. When she opened it I saw inside the gold and jade necklace
my father had given her as a wedding present. She picked it up and kissed it,
before placing it around my throat and fastening the clip.
“Mama!” I protested, knowing how much the necklace
meant to her.
She pursed her lips. “I want to give it to you now,
Anya, because you are becoming a young woman. Your father would have been
pleased to see you wear it on special occasions.”
I touched the necklace with trembling fingers.
Although I missed seeing my father and talking with him, I felt that he was
never far away. The jade seemed warm against my skin, not cold.
“He’s with us, Mama,” I said. “I know it.”
She nodded and sniffed back a tear. “I have
something else for you, Anya,” she said, opening the drawer near my knee and
taking out a package wrapped in cloth. “Something to remind you that you will
always be my little girl.”
I took the package from her and untied the knot,
excited to see what was inside. It was a matroshka doll with the smiling face
of my late grandmother. I turned to my mother, knowing that she had painted it.
She laughed and urged me to open it and find the next doll. I unscrewed the
doll’s torso and found that the second doll had dark hair and amber eyes. I
smiled at my mother’s joke, and knew that the following doll would have
strawberry-blond hair and blue eyes, but when I saw it also had a smatter of
freckles across its funny face, I burst into giggles. I opened that doll to
find a smaller one and looked up again at my mother. “Your daughter and my
granddaughter,” she said. “And with her smaller baby daughter inside her.”
I screwed all the dolls back together and lined
them up on the dressing table, contemplating our matriarchal journey and
wishing that my mother and I could always be just as we were at that moment.
Afterwards, in the kitchen, my mother placed an
apple pirog before me. She was just about to cut the little pie when we heard
the front door open. I glanced at the clock and knew it would be the General.
He spent a long time in the entranceway before coming into the house. When he
did finally enter the kitchen, he stumbled, his face a sickly color. My mother
asked if he was ill but he didn’t answer her and collapsed into a chair,
resting his head in his folded arms. My mother stood up, horrified, and asked
me to fetch some warm tea and bread. When I offered these to the General, he
looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
He glanced at my birthday pie and reached over to
me, patting my head clumsily. I could smell the alcohol on his breath when he
said, “You are my daughter.” The General turned to my mother and with tears
falling down his cheeks said to her, “You are my wife.” Sitting back in the
chair, he composed himself, wiping his face with the back of his hand. My
mother offered him the tea and he took a sip and a slice of bread. His face was
contorted with pain, but after a while it relaxed and he sighed as if he had reached
a decision. He rose from the table and, turning to my mother, gave a charade
performance of her hitting him with the spade handle after discovering his
secret hot tub. He laughed then, and my mother looked at him, astonished for a
moment, before laughing herself.
She asked him in slow Russian what he did before
the war, had he always been a general. He looked confused for a moment, then
pointed his finger to his nose and asked “Me?” My mother nodded and repeated
her question. He shook his head and closed the door behind him, muttering in
Russian so well pronounced that he could have been one of us, “Before all this
madness? I was an actor. In the theater.”
The next morning the General was gone. There was a
note pinned to the kitchen door, written in precise Russian. My mother read it
first, her frightened eyes scanning the words twice, then handed it to me. The
General had instructed us to burn everything he had left in the garage and to
burn the note after reading it. He said that he had placed our lives in great
danger when his only wish had been to protect us. He told us that we must
destroy every trace of him for our own sake.
My mother and I ran to the Pomerantsevs’ house.
Boris was chopping wood, but stopped when he saw us, wiping the sweat from his ruddy
face and rushing us inside.
Olga was by the stove, twisting her knitting in her
hands. She jumped out of her chair when she saw us. “Have you heard?” she
asked, white-faced and shaking. “The Soviets are coming. The Japanese have
Her words seemed to shatter my mother. “The Soviets
or the Americans?” she asked, her voice rising in agitation.
I could feel myself inwardly willing that it was
the Americans who were coming to liberate us with their wide smiles and bright
flags. But Olga shook her head. “The Soviets,” she cried. “They are coming to
help the Communists.”
My mother handed her the General’s note. “My God!”
said Olga after reading it. She collapsed into her chair and passed the note to
“He spoke fluent Russian?” Boris asked. “You didn’t
Boris began talking about an old friend in
Shanghai, someone who would help us. The Americans were on their way there, he
said, and my mother and I should go immediately. My mother asked if Boris and
Olga would come too, but Boris shook his head and joked, “Lina, what are they
going to do to a couple of old reindeers like us? The daughter of a White Army
colonel is a much better prize. You must get Anya out of here now.”
With the wood Boris had chopped for us we made a
fire and burned the letter along with the General’s bedding and eating
utensils. I watched my mother’s face as the flames rose and felt the same
loneliness I saw written there. We were cremating a companion, someone we had
never known or understood, but a companion just the same. My mother was
relocking the garage when she noticed the trunk. It was jammed into a corner
and hidden under some empty sacks. We lugged it out of its hiding place. The
trunk was antique and beautifully carved with a picture of an old man with a
long moustache holding a fan and gazing across a pond. My mother smashed the
padlock with an axe and we lifted the lid together. The General’s uniform was
folded there. She picked it up and I saw an embroidered jacket in the bottom of
the trunk. Underneath the jacket we found a false moustache and beard, some
makeup, thick-rimmed glasses and a copy of the New Pocket Atlas of China folded
in a sheet of old newspaper. My mother stared at me, puzzled. I said nothing. I
hoped that if only I knew the General’s secret we would be safe.
After we had burned everything, we turned over the
soil and patted away the stain with the backs of our shovels.
* * *
My mother and I went to the district official’s
office to get a permit to go to Dairen where we hoped to board a ship to
Shanghai. There were dozens of other Russians waiting in the corridors and on
the staircase, and some other foreigners and Chinese too. They were all talking
about the Soviets and how some of them were already in Harbin, rounding up the
White Russians. An old lady beside us told my mother that the Japanese family
next door to her had committed suicide, terrified of the vengeance of the
Chinese. My mother asked her what had made Japan surrender, and she shrugged,
but a young man answered that he had heard rumors of a new kind of bomb dropped
on Japanese cities. The official’s assistant came out and told us that no
permits would be issued until all those seeking them had been interviewed by a
member of the Communist party.
When we returned home our dogs were nowhere in
sight and the door was unlocked and ajar. My mother paused before pushing it
open, and just as her face on the day after my father’s mourning remains in my
memory, so is that moment imprinted on my mind, like a scene from a film played
over and over again: my mother’s hand on the door, the door swinging slowly
open, the darkness and silence inside, and the incredible sense of knowing that
someone was there, waiting for us.
My mother’s hand dropped to her side and felt for
mine. It wasn’t trembling as it had since my father’s death. It was warm and
strong and decisive. We moved together, not taking off our shoes in the
entranceway as we had always done, but continuing on into the sitting room.
When I saw him there at the table, his mutilated hands resting before him, I
wasn’t surprised. It was as if I had been expecting him all along. My mother
said nothing. She met his glassy eyes with a blank expression. He gave a bitter
smile and motioned for us to sit down at the table with him. It was then that
we noticed the other man, the one standing by the window. He was tall with
piercing blue eyes and a moustache that hung from his lip like a winter fur.
Although it was summer, darkness fell quickly that
evening. I remember the sensation of my mother’s firm grip on my hand, the
fading afternoon light retreating across the floor, and then the whistling
sound of a storm beating against the unshuttered windows. Tang interviewed us
first, his tight-lipped smile appearing whenever my mother answered his
questions. He told us that the General had not been a general at all, but a spy
who also masqueraded as a barber. He was fluent in Chinese and Russian, a master
of disguise who used his skills to gather information on the Resistance.
Because the Russians thought he was Chinese, they felt quite comfortable
gathering at his shop and discussing their plans, and revealing those of their
Chinese counterparts. I was glad then that I had not told my mother that I had
understood who the General was as soon as I saw the costume in the trunk.
Tang’s face was fixed on my mother’s and she looked so shocked that I felt sure
he would believe she had no part in the General’s work.
But even though it was obvious that my mother had
not known who the General was, that we had not received any visitors while he
lived with us, and that we were unaware that he could speak any language other
than Japanese, it could not erase the hate Tang felt towards us. His whole
person seemed to be inflamed with it. Such malice burned to only one goal:
“Madame Kozlova, have you heard of Unit 731?” he
asked, restrained anger contorting his face. He seemed to be satisfied when my
mother didn’t answer. “No, of course not. Nor would have your General Mizutani.
Your cultured, well-spoken General Mizutani who bathed once a day and has never
in his life killed a man with his own hands. But he seemed quite content to
condemn people there, as you were to house a man whose countrymen have been
slaughtering us. You and the General have as much blood on your hands as any
Tang lifted his hand and waved the infected mess in
front of my mother’s face. “You Russians, protected by your white skin and
Western ways, don’t know about the live experiments that took place in the
district next to this one. I am the only survivor. One of the many they tied to
stakes in the snow, so that their nice clean educated doctors could observe the
effects of frostbite and gangrene in order to prevent it happening to their own
soldiers. But perhaps we were the lucky ones. They always intended to shoot us
in the end. Not like the others, whom they infected with plague then cut open
without anaesthetic to observe the effects. I wonder if you could imagine the
feeling of having your head sawn open while still alive? Or being raped by a
doctor so that he could impregnate you then cut you open and look at the
Horror pinched my mother’s face but she never took
her eyes off Tang. Seeing that he hadn’t broken her, he flashed his cruel smile
again, and using his clubbed hand and elbow removed a photograph from a folder
on the table. It appeared to be of someone tied down on a table surrounded by
doctors, but the overhead light was reflecting in the middle of it and I
couldn’t make it out clearly. He told my mother to pick it up; she looked at it
and turned away.
“Perhaps I should show it to your daughter?” he
said. “They are about the same age.”
My mother’s eyes flamed and she met his hate with
her anger. “My daughter is only a child. Hate me if you want, but what say has
she had in anything?” She glanced at the photograph again and tears came to her
eyes, but she blinked them away. Tang smiled, triumphant. He was about to say something
when the other man coughed. I had almost forgotten the Russian, he had sat so
quietly, gazing out the window, perhaps not listening at all.
When the Soviet officer questioned my mother, it
was as if we had changed the script and were suddenly in a different play. He
was unconcerned with Tang’s thirst for revenge or details about the General. He
acted as if the Japanese had never been in China; he had really come to grab my
father’s throat and, my father not being there, had settled on us. His questions
to my mother were all about her family background and that of my father. He
asked about the value of our house and my mother’s assets, giving a little
snort to each reply as if he were ticking off a form. “Well,” he said,
appraising me with his yellow-speckled eyes, “you won’t have such things in the
My mother asked him what he meant, and he replied
with distaste, “She is the daughter of a colonel of the Russian Imperialist
Army. A supporter of the Tsar who turned his guns on his own people. She has
his blood. And you,” he sneered at my mother, “are of little interest to us but
of great interest to the Chinese, it seems. They need examples of what is done
to traitors. The Soviet Union just needs to call home its workers. Its young,
My mother’s face didn’t change expression, but she
gripped my hand tighter, squeezing the blood out of it and bruising the bones.
But I didn’t wince or cry out from the pain. I wanted her to hold me like that
forever, to never let me go.
With the room spinning and me nearly passing out
from the pain of my mother’s grip, Tang and the Soviet officer made their
devil’s bargain: my mother in exchange for me. The Russian got his able-bodied
worker and the Chinese man got his revenge.
* * *
I stood on the tips of my toes, reaching upwards to
the train window so that I could touch the fingertips of my mother’s
outstretched hand. She had pressed herself against the window frame so that she
could be near to me. From the corner of my eye I could see Tang standing with
the Soviet officer by the car. He was pacing like a hungry tiger, waiting to
take me. There was much confusion on the station. An elderly couple were
clinging to their son. A Soviet soldier shoved them away, forcing the young man
onto a carriage, pushing him in the back as if he were a sack of potatoes, not
a person. In the cramped carriage he tried to turn to look at his mother one
last time, but more men were pushed in behind him and he lost his chance.
My mother gripped the window bars and hoisted
herself higher so I could see her face more clearly. She was very drawn with
shadows under her eyes, but she was still beautiful. She told me my favorite
stories over again and sang the song about the mushrooms to calm my tears.
Other people were reaching their hands out of the train windows to say goodbye
to their families and neighbors, but the soldiers beat them back. The guard
near us was young, almost a boy, with porcelain skin and eyes like crystals. He
must have taken pity on us for he turned his back to us and shielded our last
moment from the view of others.
The train began to pull away. I held on to my
mother’s fingers as long as I could, side-stepping the people and boxes on the
platform. I tried to keep up but the train gathered speed and I lost my grip.
My mother was tugged away from me. She turned back, covering her mouth with her
fist because she was no longer able to contain her own grief. My tears stung my
eyes but I wouldn’t blink. I watched the train until it disappeared from view.
I fell against a lamppost, weakened by the hole that was opening up inside me.
But an unseen hand held me upright. I heard my father say to me: “You will seem
all alone, but you won’t be. I will send someone.”