Today I am Shroud

The Story

The cabinet had been bothering Kristina for a long time. When her mother asked her to take it from her great aunt’s house, which was recently sold, Kristina had happily done so. The family was always a big believer in heirlooms, and the cabinet was indeed gorgeous. Though made of simple pine, its ornate carvings of bears, elk, and lynx made the cabinet into something out of a royal folktale.

Kristina only admitted to her husband how much she had coveted the cabinet as a child, thinking perhaps it was the kind of cabinet that could take you to Narnia or Neverland. It stood in a back guest room of her aunt’s large house, adding to its mystery. Young Kristina would sneak to the rear of the house after dinner, when the adults were talking about things she didn’t yet care about, and visit the fanciful cabinet. However, each time she’d opened it, the shelves just held her great aunt’s sewing tools and boxes of old tax documents. There was not a single clue or small door to lead her off to a magical land.

Despite the disappointment in the cabinet’s magical details, she still loved it. In her house, the cabinet took a much more revered place in the dining room, opposite the cherrywood buffet she and her husband had received as a wedding gift. Unfortunately, in the move from its old home to its new, the cabinet had lost its only key.

This hadn’t bothered Kristina at first. She was nesting a new home, and recently pregnant with her first child. There were much more pressing matters than an old cabinet, especially when her husband Sam said he’d just pry it open for her with a screwdriver when there was time.

But then the house was settled, the beautiful baby born, and the curiosity of the cabinet returned. She passed it each time she moved between the kitchen to grab a bottle for the baby, and back to the den where she greeted well wishers. And each time, the desire to open it and add it to the long list of her household items that had been fully cleaned and reorganized grew.

One day, when the small babe was in the middle of a nap brought on by a full stomach, Kristina could not take it anymore. She pulled the rocker into the dining room, and collected Sam’s tool chest from under their bed. She first picked a screwdriver, as Sam had mentioned. But it did not click anything in the keyhole, and the scratching only made the baby stir. She tried several different heads, and even pulled a bobby pin from her hair to see if she could accomplish the same thing she’d seen multiple movie spies pull off. Kristina’s frustration was winning over. Finally, she grabbed the chisel, watching her baby breath in and out. When she saw a long intake of breath, what may be a snore on a larger creature, she sent a prayer that Great Aunt Alena forgive her, and popped the door open, destroying the lock.

And there they were, the magicless shelves filled with sewing needles, thread bobbins, and scraps of fabric. Some cloth she recognized as matching that of Aunt Alena’s old vanity stool. She spent enough time going through these threads, deciding which were worth saving for her own sewing kit and which were not, that the baby woke and wanted to be fed again.

With the baby resettled, Kristina returned to organizing. Layers and layers of saved cloth, knitting patterns, and half-finished crochet projects took up her afternoon. But finally, there was a full trash bag of useless things, a pile of keepsakes, and her sewing kit full to bursting with fresh material.

Onto the boxes of tax documents. They were probably cute stationary boxes once, who were repurposed for their bright, flower-tapestry decorations. But they were faded now, and only reminded Kristina of a bad wallpaper job. She was tempted to just throw all the boxes in the trash, but the many warnings of her security-minded father rang in her head, so she carried the boxes up to Sam’s office and set them beside the shredder to deal with later.

Later didn’t come for several weeks. The baby had a thankfully-short battle with croup, the healing of which was of course the main concern for many days, and then lots of rest was required for all involved. But one afternoon, Sam was playing with the baby and she decided to relieve him of a few of the office duties he normally oversaw. She filed a few papers, scanned several receipts, and then when she heard the clanging of the toy piano coming from downstairs, decided it was okay to turn on the loud shredder. After the short stack of address labels and payed bills were sorted into the shredder’s teeth, she reached the boxes from Aunt Alena’s cabinet. Opening the first box, she was greeted by the same aging pages as she’d found as child. There was no reason to keep papers for fees paid at least two decades ago, so into tiny pieces they went. But after about an inch through the first box, the paper changed. Instead of the flimsy property papers from the years before TurboTax, these pages were almost card-stock thick. And upon it, what looked like fountain-pen script.

9 August 1931

I must write this down. It’s been bothering me for quite some time. I cannot bore sweet Sacha with this stress again, as there is already so much on her mind with the baby coming. 

What on earth was this? Kristina pulled the page up close, examining the ink itself. From the subtle scratches and small ink puddles, it must have been handwritten. It appeared the writer had a hard time forming Q and Ys, as if he or she were unfamiliar with the shapes.

I don’t want to leave her at such a time, and yet I can’t just trust chance to happen again, can I? I must go swiftly, and return even swifter. 

It was a diary. Someone’s incredibly old diary pages. She lifted the rest of the sheets from the box, and popped the lids off the others. They too were filled with papers carrying a very slight yellowed tinge, and the same shaky script. Kristina knew it was not her aunt’s lettering- Alena’s handwriting had been curved and regal. This scratch seemed to be from someone who struggled with either how to write, or with what they were writing.

It’s been too long since I stopped seeking redemption for my brother’s sins, and now here the chance for forgiveness has been laid at my feet. I must go. God watch over Sacha. 

While not exactly the magical bridge she had expected, Kristina knew a doorway to another world when she saw it.

11 August 1931

Sacha told me I should go, but she cried when I left. This hurt me greatly, but did not dim my need to go. They say they’ve found the girl, and I have to see her.

I write this now, for my child still in Sacha’s belly, for the children after this one, and for their children too. You must know the sins of your uncle, and the sins of your father, and how I tried to right them both. So as this train swallows the distance, I will start from the beginning.

We were born in the village Pokrovskye, he ten years before me. I remember many faces that dwindled as I grew, and when I was 12 and he 22, my brother told me of the many siblings between he and I that did not survive. 

When his later deceptions began to come into the light, he told me to hide, that he would pretend his family were all dead. Then records confronted him with rumor of a living sibling- he claimed it his youngest sister he’d wanted to protect from shame. I wish I had been able to laugh when I read the stories of his one beloved sister, knowing that is supposed to be me, but instead I feel an odd melancholy for my lost place in history.

I was furious when he left to marry that farmer’s daughter. He said he had to start the next generation for our family, but I just felt abandoned to our aging parents. That fury was nothing compared to the bright stab of betrayal I felt when he gained power, courtesy of the royal family. He was sipping from crystal goblets while I begged for bread? Women of the court bowed at his feet while I shared our rations with his wife? And the foolish rich. The naive monarchy. Did they really think he was magical? I could tackle Grigori to the ground even when I was half his size! The idea that God would choose such a man for miracles was ridiculous. He was no David in this story of Goliaths. He was just my brother. 

The village buzzed with each arriving drop of news. It was split down the middle whether we should be proud of a man so close to the Czar or disgraced by the rumors that followed him. I was never divided. I was ashamed of what was being said about the most famous member of our family. A cult leader? A succubus? An affair with the czarina? No matter the power, no matter the riches, there was nothing to be proud of here. 

Then his disappearance. The revolution. The whole world in upheaval. And God all of them killed. The entire imperial family! I too wanted a new government, but not like this. Not the starvation that forced my father into a grave, the heartbreak that forced my mother to follow him. Certainly not the nightmare of screaming young children that has continued to haunt me. Because whose fault could it have been except his?

He had gone there. He had told them not to run for safety. My own brother had convinced the imperial mother, her daughters, her son, that faith in God was the only security they needed. Never mind all the chances God may have given them to escape. The grace the Lord may have placed on the road away from the palace, if only they had taken it. But no, Father Grigori Rasputin had said to stay, so they stayed. And then it was too late.

But perhaps it is not too late for me and mine. I have heard a rumor there is a woman that looks much like an older Anastasia. My family owes an apology to hers, and though the one who truly owes it is gone, I will do my best to offer it. 

“Can you believe this?” Kristina handed the pages to Sam as they sat up in their bed that night.

“Honestly, it’s hard to. Google says Rasputin only had a sister that survived, Feo-doh-sia. Fi-du-sia? Something Russian with an F and lots of vowels.”

“But this diary mentions that change, and Aunt Alena’s father was Feodistic. When they immigrated to Pennsylvania he introduced himself as Fido.”

“Like a dog?”

Kristina playfully smacked him on the arm, “That’s my ancestor you’re talking about.”

“Hey, mine were just a bunch of cowboys. Yours might have ruined the lives of the entire 300 year old Russian monarchy.”

Kristina glared over her glasses at him. “Oh shut up and read.”

15 August 1931

I have made it to Okhotsk. To my children reading this, you have no idea how long this journey would have taken before trains. I would have written this entry on my arrival after weeks, perhaps even months during the wrong season, that now I write only days later. But I am sure you will hear many of my old-man memories, so I will tell you now only of my current journey.

I feel on the edge of the world here in Okhotsk. Coming upon the village I felt as if I was being tricked and was to be thrown from the rails straight into the ocean. But there are many people in this working place on the mouth of a river. I asked for the family name, which I will replace here for their sake with Sokolov, a name common to the region. It took the question of many local shopkeepers before a butcher knew a neighbor of theirs.

Now I am riding a car even further out. This family is apparently fishermen, sending in their catch on a morning trolley with a young son that brings back any news or needed groceries. 

The roads have gotten rougher, and the houses further apart. God give me strength. 

“So what do you think?” Kristina asked the following morning, coffee in one hand, bottle held to the baby’s lips in the other.

“It is well written, that’s for sure.” Sam answered, spooning oatmeal for them both.

“But do you think it’s real. Do you think Aunt Alena’s dad could have been Rasputin’s baby brother? MY great great grandpa? An actual brother of the ‘mad monk’?”

“A lot of details seem to fit. But scientists think they found Anastasia’s body. And it’s such a common fairytale to think you’ve found Anastasia. It’s even got a soundtrack.”

“Well,” Kristina answered, “I’ll read more today, see what other fanciful things he’s got to say. If nothing else, it’s a good story…”

16 August 1931

What a sweet, kind family. Even before I could introduce myself they were welcoming me in to join them for their lunch. I embarrassed myself by not immediately telling them why I was there, but hopefully their gracious hospitality is enough to bless us all. 

Around the table was Mr. Sokolov, Mrs. Sokolov, their widowed niece Mada Sokolov, and Mada’s son, Nikita. Even with grey streaks through the crowns of the elder Sokolov’s, this is an exceptionally good looking family. I tried to hide my intense read of Mada, but I am sure her son noticed, as he watched me closely. Her eyes were the same as the paintings of the imperial families, and her chin was indeed sculpted like that of a Romanov. But am I only seeing things that I want to?

They offered sausage, potatoes cakes, small slices of sharp cheese, and bread. After a journey filled with such anxiety, it was like a feast to the heart. Then Mrs. Sokolov offered tea and we adjourned to their living room. When we had all settled, sharing tales of the weather from our own parts of Russia, Mr. Sokolov nodded to his wife, as if in response to an unspoken question. Then he turned to me.

“So, my welcome sir, what can I or my family do for you?”

I swallowed a last sip of tea to gather my thoughts. Years I have practiced several answers, and yet nothing seems right in the moment.

“Hopefully, I can do something for your family.”

There were many looks exchanged between my four hosts. 

“What is that?” Nikita, a young boy yet the eyes of a wise man, leaned towards me from his chair.

“Niki, manners, please.” Made whispered.

“No, he is right. You are owed an explanation.” 

I took several breaths. It seemed there was not enough air in the world to ask for what I was not owed. But before I could begin, Mrs. Sokolov looked at me with disappointment, and what seemed to be a little pity.

“We know the rumors,” Mrs. Sokolov stated calmly, “but I assure you, as I have assured others, that the rumors are only that. We are simply the victims of enjoying a quiet life away from the cities.”

“You misunderstand!” The room had grown colder with the accusation. I stood from my chair, was prepared to go to my knees.

“Clearly,” Mr. Sokolov answered gesturing for me to retake my seat. When his wife began to protest he held his hand to stop her, “He has shown no signs that concern me. I want to hear the reason for this heavy look in his eyes.”

Thus I began my explanation. How I was raised beside the monk in Pokrovskye, and yet we become, hopefully, entirely different men. How the rumors of survival had not inspired my interest, but my guilt. How I would love to grovel at Anastasia’s feet for forgiveness. They asked how I could prove my relation to the great Grigori Rasputin, and I told them there were birth marks and gestures I myself had provided to the guard when his body was found. They asked, of course, why they’d heard of a sister and not a brother, and that explanation was tricky, but I managed to speak it. Nikita laughed, saying he hoped should he have a sibling, to be remembered as the brother he was. 

“Your story, Mr. Rasputin, is indeed a fascinating one. And though I wish you could receive here the peace you seek,  I’m afraid the papers are correct, and we are not related to the royal family.” Mrs. Sokolov replied. Yet somehow, they sounded like practiced words. 

“If only we were!” Mr. Sokolov laughed, “There are still those that hate them but ah, the money would do nicely against the cold river mornings!”

I smiled and nodded, but I pressed. Something inside me demanded I press. 

“Why then, has this quiet rumor landed upon your family?” I asked.

“I fear,” Mada spoke for the first time, her voice quiet but clear, “that is my doing. When I lost my husband to the war, I could not bare to be alone in this world while baring a child. I ran from my hometown to my uncle and his wife the same year that the imperial family lost their lives. The coincidence, along with the anchoress hopes of loyalists, has led to many assumptions.”

“Pardon my rudeness, Ms. Mada, but you appear… slightly older than the year I am told Anastasia would be. And though I see the resemblance, one would not say it undeniable. Why have such rumors persisted after meeting with you?”

“Momma is not old, she is beautiful!” Nikita glared at me, “People say she has the prettiest eyes this side of the capital! And some even ask if she is my big sister!”

Mada patted Nikita’s knee, and I bowed my head in apology, “I’m sorry son, I am only looking for the right feet at which to lay my guilt.”

The room went quiet for a moment. It was a moment long enough for them to realize my true intentions, and I to do the math. Mrs. Sokolov opened her mouth to speak, but I raced her to words.

“But that is the truth, yes? Of course, how could there be another truth. They found all of the unfortunate bodies, and the rest is but a fairytale for children and traitors. I just wish I could find her, or any member of that family, and provide my condolences for my brother’s faults. For his ability to coerce, and for my silence until today. To let them know my heart is with them in all seasons, and that if there were anything at all I could do for them, it would be done in a breath.” I nodded my head, said a quick prayer, and began to take my leave. There was enough sunlight left to make it into town if I walked quickly.

“My good man,” Mada’s hand fell on my arm and kept me still. I turned to face those unmistakable eyes, the gentle smile, the regal hold in her shoulders.

“I am only a country widow, but I know, if our souls can hear, your plea has been heard. If there was ever a darkness against you, it has been forgiven and forgotten, by those wronged and the Lord himself. Please, do not go from our door with such a weight on your shoulders.” 

Overwhelmed, I did my best not to weep at her feet, and instead took their invitation to stay for dinner as well as the night before my return journey. 

The morning I left, the sun was unusually bright, the river path to the ocean remarkably clear. I thank the sweet Sokolov family for their hospitality, and apologized for my intrusion on their routine. They, being gracious hosts, insisted it was not an intrusion at all but a welcome visit. 

Before I left, I shook the firm hand of young Nikita, “Son, you are brilliant beyond your years and a man of great strength. Should you seek work in the capital, you will do me a great service to stay under my roof.”

I caught the beam of pride from Mada, and knew this was the best I could do. The walk to the closest train station was tiresome yet welcome, for there was much to think on. All these years, I sought redemption from Anastasia. But it was the sweet Mada and her son who cleansed my soul. 

Children, I write this for you to read and pass on through our family. Not to take to the papers, for the Sokolov’s are only a humble fishermen’s family, but to hold in your heart. Forgiveness is both the greatest gift we can bestow and receive. May this lead you to a life of light and happiness.

28 October 1931

God be praised, my child is born! Alena you are my first child and a light in the world. Your mother is healthy and as in love with you as I. Your eyes are bright with wisdom, and your cheeks red with our kisses. May all our journeys end with returning home to you!

Kristina watched Sam from the corner of her eye as he read the last page.

“Well?” she whispered, partly because the baby had just been put down, and partly so as not to disturb the dust of history they appeared to be walking through.

“Wow. That’s all I can say. Just… wow.”

“Do you think it’s true?” She curled into his shoulder.

“I don’t know. But knowing doesn’t seem to be the point. Your great grandfather went seeking forgiveness from Anastasia, and found Maria Nikolavena survived instead, perhaps even passed down the royal genes. Perhaps the Anastasia rumors could be one of history’s greatest cons to throw people off the trail of the real living sister.” He chuckled lightly at the thought.

“Sam… I believe him. I think he found her.”

Sam kissed the top of her brunette-crowned head and sighed, “Yeah, I’m afraid I do too. Do you think we should tell anyone?”

“No… no I don’t think so,” Sleep was tugging at the end of Kristina’s words, “He wanted forgiveness, nothing else. Let’s let him have it.”

“Of course, my little czarina, of course.”

The Word

Shroud (verb): 1. Wrap or dress (a body) in a shroud for burial. 2. Cover or envelop so as to conceal from view.

Grief is an ugly thing, isn’t it? I don’t mean that rudely. It is just simply hard to look at. It’s not pleasant or pretty. In movies, they make grief this gorgeous event with wistful stares and tears that don’t smudge the eyeliner as you sit in your cubicle pretending to be fine. Movie grief is thunder without lightening- sound without impact. But in reality, it’s just plain ugly, and the impact is random and jarring. The veil worn over the face in olden times is now worn across the heart. And in today’s fast paced world we are expected to move on quickly. The news has changed, the fads have changed, how can you possibly still be sad? Why can’t you dance around like everybody else? Why aren’t you as fun as you used to be? It’s ridiculous. It’s ugly.

I am immensely blessed in the amount of joy I am able to find in the people and events that I grieve. The sunny memories paired with lasting love and influence are not to be taken for granted. But there are still days when the dark clouds win over. Lately I’ve been thinking and reading on people who were never able to escape those dark clouds, which oddly enough led me to a documentary on the fall of Russia’s monarchy (yeah, I know, weird trail but that’s what us right-dominate-brains are good at). Today’s tale comes from the combinations of that ugly side of grief and drinking wine while watching a well-constructed documentary. But Stephen King once wrote The Shining based on falling out of his hotel bed onto an ugly carpet, so I feel like writers are just odd when it comes to visions. Hopefully at least the likes of him will understand today’s weird inspirations.

May your dark clouds move quickly. And if they do stay, may they bring rain for the flowers to grow. Goodnight.