“Good morning, Mrs. Lubin.”
“Professor Lubin,” he corrected, consulting his clipboard.
“How are you feeling?”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“You have suffered a neurological event, a transient ischemic attack…”
“Stroke,” she said.
“Well, not yet, we hope not at all. I’m pleased that your voice is so strong. I am Dr. Mortimer Lilyveck and this is Dr. Natalie White and this is Dr. Eric Hauser. Dr. Hauser will ask you a few questions.”
Dr. Hauser cleared his throat. “What month are we in?”
Her eyes strayed to the window, to the snowy Chicago sky. They returned to Dr. Hauser with a glare.
“Who is the President?”
The glare intensified.
“What is your age? Where were you…?”
“Ninety-two,” she said. “It should be on your records. I was born in 1914. In Brooklyn.” Young Dr. Hauser produced a grimace probably meant to be heartening. It might have earned him the firing squad, years ago, far away. “My father was born in Russia,” she said, more slowly. “He was the… He was… He was the…” and the voice, suddenly aged, quavering, slipped into a different language. There it regained its strength.
He was the Tsar. Little Father.
She spoke rapidly now, in this other tongue.
He dressed simply and bathed in cold water. He carried a metal pocket case containing a portrait of his wife, the Empress Alexandra. He loved the forceful Empress. My mother was not forceful. He did not love my mother.
You don’t wish to hear this history, you indifferent Americans. But there will soon be another ischemic attack…
“Ischemic attack…” Dr. Hauser, with a second ghastly smile, seized the familiar words.
…and so I wish to…tell. I am not the last of the Romanovs—there are collateral descendants here and there, one operates a cleaning establishment—and I am not even a legitimate Romanov, and I am not even legitimate; but I am the sole surviving offspring of Nicholas II and Vera Derevenko. I could if I were so inclined claim the treasure supposedly residing in a French Bank; I could claim the crown now under glass in Moscow; I could claim all those eggs Fabergé made for my family.
My mother Vera Derevenko was the daughter of a doctor in the royal household. She had trained as a nurse. Nicholas and Vera copulated in the woods surrounding Nicholas’s favorite palace, Tsarkoe Selo, in June, 1913, when the world was at peace. And then Vera went back to her St. Petersburg hospital and discovered she was pregnant. She fled to America. There I was born. My father knew nothing of me, he was the Tsar.”
“Professor Lubin, it would help if you spoke English,” said Dr. Lilyveck.
“Whom would it help?”
She made a weary gesture. “The Empress Alexandra and the children, my half-siblings, destined to die in a basement, were away at the time, on holiday, in the Crimea. The doctors and tutors too. The monk was drinking and fornicating in another province. Nicholas, head of state, remained in Tsarkoe Selo to examine documents and sign them, to read letters and answer them. Ministers visited him continually. The Duma was a joke.
My mother too had stayed behind to arrange some matters for her father, the doctor.
The Tsar walked alone every day in the woods. She also. But this was not an assignation but an accident. I happened by chance.
Have you seen our land in the spring? I have not, nor in any season; but my mother described it to me during her final illness fifty years ago. Mud; well the mud is famous. A sweet confusion in the woods, young leaves furring the birches, immense red pines, willows. You can hear the new blackbirds. They will be shot…”
She aimed two fingers at Dr. White, who did not flinch, did not even lower her eyes.
“…in autumn. There was a ravine where crystal water bubbled. On a branch hung a funnel-shaped ladle made of birch. They drank the cold fresh water. They walked along a winding path to an unused hunting lodge. They spoke of Dickens, of Durer…favorite topics of well-bred Russians. In the late afternoon sun the air was full of amber droplets, and everything was as if bathed by warm tea—the trees, the wet lane, even the faces of the two people who had not yet touched one another. This is the Russian spring.”
Dr. Lilyveck touched his balding head. “There is a translator. She is not in the hospital today.”
“My mother’s eyes were gray and her teeth were widely spaced. Her skin was freckled. Her curly hair was light brown. As a member of the household she had seen that Nicholas was prodded and worried by the adored Empress and the detested monk. She pitied the Little Father. She was not raped that afternoon, not seduced; seignorial right was not exercised. She collaborated in her own deflowering. His hands were gentle. His eyes were the brown of a thrush, and his beard too. There was only a little pain. There was extreme sweetness.
And then came an extraordinary moment. She looked up, into his brown gaze; and she saw his murder, the murder that would take place five years later, in July, Dr. Hauser.”
“It’s January,” he said in a low voice.
“Eight—she saw eight corpses—man, wife, five children, serving-maid—and a crushed spaniel, dying. The corpses, first shot, were then chopped, acidified, burned, and buried. These meager remains were identified later by the metal photograph case and the skeleton of the spaniel, whose body had been tossed into the grave.
My mother saw other future things, disconnected images. She saw an open-eyed little girl, dead of typhus, or was it starvation, or was it the bayonet. One of the twelve million of the Little Father’s children to die during the coming Civil War. She saw Trotsky in his greatcoat. She saw Zinoviev the apparatchik getting out of a limousine whose seats were covered with bearskin. She saw members of the Cheka, the Secret Police, blood dripping from their fangs. She saw Lenin dead from stroke or perhaps poison.
When news of these happenings reached her ears in far-off Brooklyn she merely nodded.
Good doctors, there is a figure in Russian legend: a domesticated bear, I cannot remember the name given him, call him Transient Ischemik…
“Transient Ischemic, yes,” Dr. Hauser encouraged.
…who has the power to foresee the future but not the language to reveal it. He can only gaze at his masters from the hearth—sorrowfully, for the future is always grievous. So it was with my mother—she spoke little, she spoke less, she spoke hardly at all, she might have been an animal. In Brooklyn, despite her nurse’s training, she worked as a lowly attendant in an institution for the feebleminded. We lived with an impoverished female cousin. The few sentences my mother did say she said in Russian.”
“The translator will come tomorrow.”
“Afterwards they stood and straightened their clothing. He picked up the framed picture of his wife, which had fallen out of his pocket. He raised my mother’s fingers to his lips. Separately they returned to the palace. She never saw him again.
She would hear many times that he had been autocratic, weak, extravagant, indifferent to his subjects, deserving of the epithet Bloody. She did not contradict.
All this she told me in a spate of verbosity the night she died.”
Dr. Lilyveck said, “You need not think of death.”
She closed her eyes, banishing him, banishing his two subordinates. She recalled and then chose not to recall her pinched girlhood apartment on Avenue J and the two gloomy women who had raised her; her long and indifferent marriage; her unimportant contributions to topology; her only son, victim of cancer at thirty-five. Another dead Romanov. And she, lying now under three watchful pairs of eyes…might she at this late hour be invested with that old bear’s power to envision the future? Plagues, civil disruptions, babies born monstrous—any wag could foretell those catastrophes. No. No: her gift was to witness not what was to come but what had been. She thought of the Little Father, Nicholas, abandoned before his death and disregarded afterwards, remembered now only by a stroked-out mathematician who had not known him but could nevertheless see khaki garments. Beard. Kindly eyes. Mouth smiling at the freckled nurse who on a summer afternoon had soothed his troubled spirit. A solitary incident; one moment of singular ease; its issue one life of singular unremarkability: hers. And with her passing would die not the memory of the incident—that memory had perished with Nicholas, with Vera—but the memory of its deathbed telling. The reputation of the tragic tsar…no further stain…
She opened her eyes. The doctors were still there, writing on their clipboards, exchanging glances, as thorough as the Cheka. “My mother was mad,” she said hurriedly in English. “Her story was merely an invention to console me for my shameful birth,” she recanted. “The season is winter, Dr. Hauser. The President is…a Boob.”
Dr. White touched her hand. Little Mother, she said in the old woman’s tongue. If a lie, a generous one. And if the truth, safe with you and me. Rest now.
A few minutes later, in the hall, “Natalie,” snapped Dr. Lilyveck. “Your command of Russian—an unexpected talent. The patient’s prattle: what was it?”
“Mortimer,” said Dr. White sweetly. “A folk tale, more or less.”