Starting from scratch. Lovely.
Sunlight peeked over Ophelia’s toes as she pushed her feet up towards the sky. Softly she drifted back down, the braided rope of the swing becoming taut as she fell closer to the earth. She pulled her feet back and launched her white sandals once more forward, propelling her once again into the sky. A cloud of platinum curls fanned out behind her as her body reached out towards the breeze. The swing was made with an old tire Ophelia’s brother had rolled home one day. It was tied to a sturdy branch of a willow tree that seeped into the earth in her family’s front yard. The tree must have been just as old as the house was, for its’ branches arched with age and an anguish only a willow tree can possess. The branches fell intricate gateways, and it’s feathery leaves nearly touched the ground.
The house had been built fifty years previous. It stood two stories tall, with a trellis climbing up the south facing wall. The trellis wore a rose bush that had been planted in coordination with the willow. The blossoms that flowered could grow to the size of an outstretched hand, and bore a hue of red that could not be imagined more perfectly. Ophelia would bury her face in them, breathing in the musky scent of the bloom, and then look up and try to reach another.
Laying on a grass near the swing, Ophelia’s older sister Katchya nodded her head to a current angst-filled teenage melody on her discman. Every so often she glanced towards her younger sister and opened one eye to make sure she was still enjoying herself. Katchya too was in her own world, willing her pallid skin to soak up just enough sun to darken a shade, but not enough to burn it. Daydreaming about one special boy in particular.
As Ophelia sat atop the tall tire, pushing herself back and forth on the swing her father had made for her, she saw Kisa galloping towards her through the tall emerald grass. Kisa was a small dog that Ophelia’s father had given her for her fourth birthday, only six months previously. Kisa was a norfolk terrier, and he was Ophelia’s greatest joy. The two were best friends, their bond sealed the moment Kisa had jumped out of the box that Ophelia’s father had hidden her in. Since that moment, the dog followed her petite footsteps everywhere she went.
The family had immigrated from Russia just over four years ago, in 1989. Ophelia’s father had always emphasized the importance of the family being fluid in both languages, knowing they may one day need to escape the life he had created for them in Russia. Katchya and the eldest child, Andrei had no difficulty with this because english was taught to them in school. Helen consistently rejected learning english, knowing that learning english might equate to the family one day moving far away from their home in Russia, but her husband Nikolai insisted. She loathed speaking to her baby in a foreign language. Ophelia has no memories of her mother that aren’t filled with the heavy sound of her Mother Tongue. The rest of the family talked to Ophelia in both Russian and English, and had done so since she was born. At the age of four, she was fluent in both languages, but at times would mistake certain russian words for others.
When Ophelia was greeted with her excited gift, she mistakenly called out; “Kisa!” The russian word for cat. Katchya and Andrei loved the ironic name, and although their father insisted that ‘Kisa’ was no name for a dog, the name stuck never the less.
Ophelia’s mother Helen couldn’t help but smile as she watched Ophelia leap off of her swing, and fall into the grass with Kisa. Together they play-fought, rolling through the grass. Helen returned her eyes to the dishes- she was worried. The past four years had been nothing but uneasiness for her.
“Nikolai,” she said in Russian (she always spoke in Russian), it was almost a whisper. “I fear their joy.” Her husband sat at the kitchen table, reading the international portion of the Vancouver Sun. He placed the newspaper on the table and rubbed his hand across his wide chin, the coarse stubble irritating his fingertips. He sighed, and stood up.
“My aHren,” he said, and wrapped his arms around his dear wife. “My angel. It’s over now. We are halfway across the world. They will never find us here, not in the suburbs of a Canadian city. No, not here.” He buried his face in her halo of golden curls.
“It feels like if we are happy, and relaxed, that is when they will come,” Helen said, rolled her shoulders, and pushed away from the counter. She took off her gloves and walked outside. The sky was a soft blue, and sunlight radiated onto her, the heat comforting. She held her hand over her eyes, and looked out to Ophelia and Katchya. Nikolai followed her, and stood next to her.
When they had met 20 years ago, Nikolai had just begun working for a man named Viktor Antonova, his brother. A man working hard to launder Rubles by the thousand into various legitimate businesses. It began simply, moving cash from point A to point B, running errands. Back then it was thrilling, and Helen was swept away with the excitement.
After the birth of their first child, Nikolai was promoted, and was asked to move ‘product’ and solicit it for a wealthier men named Yury Bayrakdarian. Nikolai attempted to keep Helen in the dark as much as he could, not wanting her to worry about his safety. But then, after Katchya was born, Nikolai was again promoted. He was needed for weeks at a time, and he could no longer hide from his darling wife what kind of illegitimate dealings he’d become a part of. As it always does, time went on.
Nearly 13 years later, Nikolai returned home after being away for two weeks. He had blood dripping from a head wound, and a soaked mass of someone else’s blood on his white button up dress shirt. He would never be able to tell Helen what happened on that night, but that night he made a decision. His family were no longer safe. The plan to escape into the night was made quickly. At the time, Ophelia was just shy of a year old, a bundle of tears in the confusion that ensued.
“I told you that I would buy us a perfect house, in a perfect neighbourhood, where our perfect family could grow and be safe together,” Nikolai said to Helen, and put his arm around her shoulder.
“What if they find us?” Helen asked, a question she had asked over and over again since their journey had ended at their picturesque home in North Vancouver. Nikolai listened for a moment to Ophelia’s laughter. He watched her elation. He had been careful. He had risked everything to hide them.
“Nobody knows where we are, and unless I tell them myself, they will not find us.”
Across the city Andrei stood with his skateboard clasped firmly between his knees. In one hand he held a lighter and in the other, a cigarette. He desperately fought to light the end against the breeze coming off the ocean. He dropped his skateboard and cursed. His friend Jesse cupped his hands, and tried to give Andrei some shelter from the wind, but Andrei shrugged off the help. Andrei was seventeen, and seemed to be even more stubborn than his mother and father combined. He took a deep breath and then was still for a moment. He tried one last time to light the cigarette, and was successful. He picked up his skateboard and looked around. They were waiting on a street corner in East Vancouver, a place with few welcoming faces. He tried not to show it, but he felt uneasy.
“What exactly are we waiting for again?” Andrei asked Jesse. They were newly made accomplices. Jesse’s family had just moved from Russia, and the principal had made a point to introduce the two to each other.
“Chill Andrei. It’s just my uncle. He just wants to meet you.” Jesse held a high interest in Andrei. He had asked him all sorts of questions when they first met. Where had he grown up? Who were his parents? Andrei knew better than to answer the questions honestly, but the false answers he gave were too close to the truth, and his stiff black hair gave him away in part. He was the spitting image of his father.
Ophelia was anxious. “Momma, we need to go, we need to go now!” she said, tugging at her mother's white linen dress. Helen smeared sunscreen over her daughters milky skin.
“I’m almost finished my lily flower. Please be patient.”
“Kisa is sad and she is lost and alone and we need to go get her.”
“I’m sure she is fine, maybe she found her way into the park through the fence again. Let’s go for a walk, and we will find her very soon. Go get her leash,” Helen said, and smeared the rest of the sunscreen onto her own face. It was the height of summer, and their skin seemingly could not handle even a few moments of exposure without reddening. Ophelia roughly attempted to force her sandals upon her feet. Her mother knelt down and gently buckled them. Ophelia placed her hand on the doorknob and stared up at her mother expectantly. Helen held out her hand for Ophelia to grab, and together they walked out into the summer day.
Together they searched around the block, asking neighbours as they passed if anyone had seen Kisa. Once they reached the park, Ophelia soon forgot about their search, thrust the thin pink leash into her mothers’ hands, and proceeded to gallop across the playground. Once in a while she would stand at the highest point of the play equipment and shout out; “Kisa!”
Helen called her youngest daughter in after a half an hour had passed. Hand in hand, they started walking home.
“Momma I will make some signs,” Ophelia said, her eyes focused on the pavement seeking cracks to jump over.
“That’s a good idea lily flower,” Helen said, and squeezed her daughters hand. “Papa will be home soon for lunch time. You may make some signs, while I make lunch.”
“Grilled cheese?” Ophelia asked, as she prepared to leap over a crack in the pavement.
“We’ll see,” said Helen. They had arrived back at their home. Ophelia let go of her mothers’ hand and ran towards the willow tree, intent on her new tire swing. Helen’s eyes scanned the yard. It was just for a moment. A habit that she couldn’t shake, even after four years.
When her eyes settled on the swing she opened her mouth in horror. Beneath the swing she saw a flash of red one might only interpret as blood. Maybe someone had spilt paint. Maybe some raccoons had battled with a cat the night before. But in that moment Helen envisioned something much more dire, and she screamed out her daughters name.
“Stop!” she cried after her. Ophelia turned her body, and looked at her mother in alarm. What was so urgent? The fear in her mothers’ eyes frightened her, and quickly she made her way back. Helen picked up Ophelia, and hurried into the house. She locked the door behind her, and closed her eyes for a moment. She took a breath. In that moment she knew- it was over. The dust that had settled into their perfect peaceful life had been blown upon. “Go get some paper, from Papa’s office.” Helen said, trying her best to keep her voice calm.
“Momma?” Ophelia’s eyes had welled up with tears. Helen needed to ease the fear she had shown her daughter.
“Nothing is wrong dear,” she insisted, “go into Papa’s office and pick out some paper. Some of the nice colored paper that Papa doesn’t let you use. Yes, go ahead” she ushered her daughter, a painted smile frozen on her face, “go ahead,” she whispered. Ophelia rushed away, the panicked juncture forgotten.
Helen reached behind her back and unlocked the door. She knew she had to investigate what was out on her front lawn. Maybe she’d overreacted. Maybe she hadn’t spied blood at all, but in that moment she needed to know.
She approached the swing carefully. She felt her knees weaken when again she spotted the crimson color in the grass. Sobs burst from her when she spotted a smear of the red against the trunk of the tree. She moved closer, her senses screaming at her to return to the safety of her home. She had to know. She had to know.
Under the swing was a burlap sack that indeed was covered in blood. It was such a small bag that Helen knew immediately what had happened. Tears filled her vision, and her whole body convulsed. A great sadness paralyzed her, as she wept over the body of the most innocent member of their family. She hadn’t realized, but she had sunk to the ground and was sitting on her knees, her white dress grinding into the grass. She couldn’t lift herself. Her face cramped in fear, tears streaming, she walked on all fours until she reached the pavement of the driveway. She lifted herself then and looked down. Two circular stains showed where her knees had ground the ivory dress into the yard. She stood fixed on the spot until Nikolai’s lexus pulled into the driveway. All she could do was point.
Andrei and Katchya were called home from school immediately. Nikolai had no plan in place before, but the plan was to leave, as fast as possible, in the morning. Andrei and Katchya were told to pack one bag each of their most important belongings. Nikolai would not tell Katchya what was the reason for alarm. Andrei was terrified. Had he caused this? He remained silent as well, trying to figure out which he feared more; the wrath of his father, or the unknown malice approaching?
“Mom what the fuck is going on?” Katchya shouted as she approached her mother.
“Andrei, cover your sisters ears.”
“This isn’t happening, people don’t just skip town like its’ nothing, that happens in the movies mom. I’m not just leaving.”
“We are leaving,” was all Helen could say. “Tomorrow morning.”
“No we’re not! I’m not leaving Nathan, mom, we’re in love! I love him!”
“We are leaving tomorrow, Katchya.” Helen couldn’t muster more, the fear froze her, and everything in her was already working hard to not shut down, to not show her dear children dread. An image of her children lined up in three bags, two larger, one smaller, flashed through her minds’ eye. Her painted smile quivered, and then held fast.
“I’m not fucking going anywhere!” Katchya shouted. Helen ignored her, removed Andrei’s hands from Ophelia’s ears, and collected her in her arms. She walked upstairs into her bedroom. Her bags were already packed, and had been for hours. She locked the door, and lay down on her bed, holding Ophelia closely to her. Ophelia squirmed, but stayed on the bed.
“I love you,” Helen said to Ophelia.
“What’s wrong mommy?” Children at times are blissfully unaware of the weight of situations going on around them.
“I love you my lily flower. I love you with all of my love,” Helen said.
“And Papa? And Andrei? And Katchya? and Kisa?”
“I love all of you with all of my love,” her mother said, her painted smile momentarily disappearing. Her lip quivering, eyes filling with tears. She sighed, and breathed it away, and stroked Ophelia’s platinum hair.
Together they eventually fell asleep. However, the storm of teenage angst and hardship echoed throughout the house for hours more. Nikolai was ill prepared for his daughters’ wrath, and was relieved when she declared she was going to marry her newfound love, and slammed her bedroom door behind her. There would be no time for nuptials. They were leaving as early as possible in the morning.
“Don’t you dare say a word,” Nikolai said, as he turned to his son. “This decision is final, and we are not discussing it further. Not until we are far away from this house. Pack up whatever you want to bring along, because we are not returning, do you understand me?” His father’s voice held such authority over him, that Andrei said nothing. He could have. He could have described what happened the day previous. His friend Jesse, and Jesse’s mysterious uncle. Andrei chose not to, and walked upstairs and slammed the door to his own bedroom, next to Katchya’s. He could hear her sobbing and turned on some music, pushing up the volume button until her sadness was drowned out.
Helen woke abruptly to the sounds of shuffling echoed upstairs, heavy boots dragging across the hardwood. A voice she didn’t recognize was shouting. Ophelia lay asleep, tightly curled in her arms, her soft curls matted to her face with sweat. Helen lay paralyzed. They were already here. She waited for a moment, lost in her thoughts. Calculating how long she had, and trying to decide what to do next.
Helen picked her daughter up gently, and willed braveness from a very small piece of courage still left within her heart. She walked over to the window that overlooked the yard and the willow. She pulled back the curtain, and gingerly opened the frame. She peered out into the darkness. There was nothing outside save for the heavy scent of the roses. At this point Ophelia was awake and groggy. Helen looked at her daughter, and then at the tire swing hidden between the feather willow branches.
“Ophelia, look at me,” she said slowly, and carefully. Ophelia’s azure eyes stared up at hers, fear beginning to fill them. “I am going to place you on the grass. And you are going to crawl. My love you are going to crawl like a little bug in the grass. You are going to crawl all the way to your swing. Ok? And then you are going to climb into your swing. Not on top, like when you are playing, but inside the tire. You are going to stay there, and wait for me. This is not a time to play. Do you understand my lily flower? You are going to wait inside that tire until I come to you, and tell you you are safe. You are not going to move until I come to you.” Ophelia nodded slowly, and yawned. Maybe she was too tired to feel the full weight of the fear in her mothers’ voice, or see it in her mothers’ eyes, but she was not afraid as she should have been. Helen cuddled her daughter in her arms one last time, and kissed her on the forehead. “All my love,” she said. “I love you will all my love. I will come tell you when you are safe.” Helen reached out and lowered her daughter onto the grass. Ophelia crawled slowly to the tire, and climbed in. Helen could not see Ophelia through the darkness and the tire was so substantial that Ophelia was engulfed in it. Helen breathed in the scent of the night, it was heavy with the perfume of the roses from the trellis.
Helen carefully closed the window, and drew the curtains. She adjusted her dress, it was the same one she had been wearing that morning, the grass stains still stunningly green. She couldn’t help but think it was a pretty colored green. She tried desperately not to think about what may be happening within the rest of the house as she stood there, unmoving. She walked to the door, and pressed her ear against the wood. She could hear voices in the hallway, walking towards her room. She couldn’t help but smile, grateful that she’d had those few moments to safely hide Ophelia. She backed away from the door. Someone rattled the knob, it was still locked. She walked backwards until she reached the bed, and gingerly sat down, her eyes fixed upon the door, listening as the ominous stranger began to throw their body weight against the door. Helen closed her eyes, and waited.